INSIDE MY HEAD
In the streets of Rampur, a man walked in subdued steps with his cloak wrapped tightly around him. Fog hung about in the air, protesting against the arduous attempt of the stars at illuminating his lonesome walk, which seem to occupy each and every corner of the black sky. The old man had his hands inside his tattered cloak to save them from freezing. The whole city was in a lull, except for the mechanized voice that emanated from the railway station a few hundred yards away from him.
When he reached there, he found it to be just as silent, as if coldness had wrapped its arm of gloom around the whole place, engulfing everyone in a tight hug. A few people with shawls over their shoulders waited in platform for trains, while others were asleep comfortably on floors in unknown and unheeded corners of the station, wrapped comfortably in their plastic bags as you and I would be in our blankets in our homes. A man nodded his head as he walked past the enquiry office. He snaked his way past the people lying here and about, keeping away from them as one would from a corpse, till he reached where the platform started. Anxious to meet his son before he died of a cold, he crossed the railway tracks instead of taking the over-bridge. But rather than bliss that the approaching end to a long journey entails, the old man felt sudden dread upon the sight of the long road, light shining off of one side of the undergrowth of the road, as if the other one was too monstrous to reveal.
“Oh, you are going that way then?” a cobbler sitting by the bench asked. The cobbler was a short man, with a face that could have considered kind if not for the frown he wore. Except for him, platform-2 was empty, and having his bag packed of shoe polish and brushes, even he looked ready to leave.
“Yes, is this the way to Samrat Sharma? I am his father,” the old man asked, walking closer to the stranger in hope of company.
“The doctor at the pharmacy?”
“Yes, yes, the doctor at the pharmacy. Could you show me the way?”
“No, my home is the other way. But it is a shame that you would go that way at this time of the night.”
“Why so?” the cobbler laughed out loud. “Why, your son has made a fool of his old man.”
The man looked at the wide smile spread upon the cobbler’s face. At the distance he saw moonlight playing shyly with the forest. One moment it was bold and bright, and the other, demurely like a newlywed, giving everything a feel that was something beyond natural. Darkness descended again as the smiling moon hid behind the passing clouds. The old man gulped.
“Oh, come on! Your son must have told you all about it.”
He was furious with his son. “But my son didn’t seem much concerned.” The old man sat down beside the cobbler at the bench. “What do I do now? It can’t be true.”
The cobbler burst out laughing again, as a child would when he saw a prank being pulled on another. “Then why does he allow his old father to make the way alone to his house?”
“It is true then. He told me in the passing.”
“I am afraid so, old man. The road is haunted. People have died at that road.”
“I thought it must have been a lore.”
“Oh, I have seen it all. Things I wish I hadn’t seen,” said the cobbler. He looked at the paleness that had crept into the face of the old man. “Once, I saw a woman in white eating the heart of a man half as young as you, and twice as healthy as me.”
“Does it matter? Another time, I could swear a friend of mine died of a heart attack in this very forest when he saw that lady. Oh, I really have seen it all.”
“I can’t go that way.”
The young man protested boisterously here, almost let it out as a squeak of delight. ”You will freeze to death if you stay.”
“I could stay the night at your home. I will pay a hundred rupees.”
“Oh no, it would not be fit for the father of a doctor to stay in a home as small as mine. The doctor would be furious, and then what if I fall ill, who will treat me then. Your son is just, but terribly frightening when angry.”
“I wish it could be all about money, my friend.” The cobbler turned back as if ready to leave, but he stayed, a deep frown in his face again. He sighed at the sight of the anxious old man.
“I will tell you what. You give me that hundred and I will escort you to your home.”
The old man nodded eagerly. “And I can stay promise you a stay there for the night.”
“Deal,” the cobbler laughed. “God save me. If it weren’t for an old man like you, I would have been sleeping with my wife right now.”
With that, both of them started strolling toward the thick forest, the cobbler in front, while the old man silently wobbling behind him. Crickets chirruped to break the silence that they were stubborn to maintain. It was dark indeed, except for patches of light that shyly sleeked from the gaps between those tall trees.
“What kind of a fellow you are, my friend? In the station, you were taking the name of Lord in fear, and now you stomp like the bravest in the presence of Satan.”
“Ah, what to do, old man. What’s the point of fear in our hearts? Either we meet her in the road and die, or we don’t see her and live to tell the tale,” the cobbler said, picking up a stick lying the undergrowth. “There is no mid-way once you set upon this road.”
The old man gulped again. The cobbler laughed more.
“And you risked it for a hundred rupees? You are only a fool then.”
The cobbler shook his head sheepishly. “I am telling you I am not afraid to die. Poorer man have died for less.”
“”Ah, bless the stars, who have I ended up with.”
The cobbler laughed.
But he did not answer him anymore, and the silent felt evil again. The road curved ahead of them, revealing a darker self of itself as in the distance the barks of a dog grew prominent. The old man started his prayers as the depths of the undergrowth increased, as if forming an archway to a mysterious land of the devils.
“Oh, bless the stars! Bless the stars!” the old man burst forth when a couple of hours later, against his hope of survival, he found the sly road open up to a town. The town was asleep at this hour of the night, but the ungodliness was gone, replaced by an amiable feel that only came with familiarity in the presence of humanity.
The cobbler jumped in delight too. “Ah, you are a lucky old man. It is the first time that someone has arrived safe through that road in a night as sinister as this.”
“Ah, it is safe again. I can see my son,” the old man said as he leapt with joy and hugged the cobbler.
“Let’s walk faster. We don’t want you to freeze.”
The old man, now a lot more relaxed, smiled at this remark of the cobbler. “Ah, wait a bit, the cold doesn’t seem bitter anymore. I will tell you what. It is the young wife of his that must have stopped him to come for me.”
“They set the traps on men, don’t they? The beautiful ones are the worst.”
“Right, right, my friend.”
They walked as they talked, under the shimmering moon, which gave away to a lone morning star when they finally reached the house. His son was in the veranda when they reached, while his daughter-in-law rocking her two month old son in the crib.
“Where have you been, father? I wanted to go but Sonu caught a cold. I had to take him to my clinic,” the doctor came running to him, and touched his feet.
“This gentleman saved me, or else I would have died in that forest.”
The doctor bowed profusely to the cobbler. “Thank you, my friend. Here, here. Take this money. Take this money,” the doctor said finally pulling two crisp five hundred rupees note. “Nothing would suffice the bravery you showed. “
The cobbler refused at first, but accepted upon it as the request was reiterated again and again.
“You are a brave man,” the doctor cried out again as his wife came with a tray of pot when they had settled. “A man died in that very village, someone saw his heart being eaten by a creature whiter than any human could be. And another died of a heart attack when he saw that despicable creature. You are a brave man…”
“But it is strange for a man to live to tell the tale, having seen something as evil as this. But wasn’t it…” but the old man was cut short by the cobbler, who looked confused at him.
“Yes, yes, the most evil creature as ever can be,” the cobbler said, a sweet smile lit up his face again, exuding a rare sense of innocence. “But my good friend, I am late and I would have to get to the train directly to polish shoes. Cobblers don’t earn as much, you know.”
The doctor nodded in sympathy, but said no more. Finally with a long gulp, the cobbler finished what remained of his tea, bowed to each of them in respect, and left quietly toward the forest that people were so afraid of. The family watched him disappear at the bend of the road, wondering about the forest that awaited ahead of him. For days, the old man could not help but think about the man who smiled and said he wasn’t afraid to die. He knew now the cobbler crossed the forest every day, encountering the darkness of it, walking past familiar roads yet an undefined destination, wondering everyday how the path would end, with satisfaction or hunger. Oh, but that was it, the biggest mystery that encircles them all.