Run After, Run Away
by Mohan Pandey
Part 1 appears in this issue.
In the office, Joseph was waiting for Brandon to brief him on what Rashid and Kassim had said the day before.
Taking the cigar out from his mouth, Brandon said, “I noticed everything quiet last night. What’s that you found of interest after meeting the real-estate chap and the supervisor?”
“Well, both of them filled me in with varying degrees of gossip or, who knows, stories with some substance. They had much to say about the history of the house, the disappearance of the young women and the curse on the men leading to their tragic death.”
Brandon made himself comfortable in his seat, waiting for Joseph to go ahead.
“It’s rather long, but let me tell you in short,” Joseph said. “This house was built fifty years ago by a rich sheikh, Mustapha, for his large family and servants. After a few years, he took a beautiful young woman for his second wife. Then followed family discords with his first wife, Saeeda, with whom Mustapha had six children.
“The squabbles became frequent, loud and, at times, violent. Rumors of black magic were soon circulating. One day, everything became quiet, but Saeeda had gone missing. In those times, tribal traditions reigned supreme; missing persons vanished without any consequence. No police, no probe.
“After the thirteenth day of the disappearance of Saeeda, Mustapha had an upsetting dream that woke him up in the middle of the night. He heard the sound of running footsteps, someone screaming and wailing, smashing chairs and tables. The strange happenings continued sporadically. His servants left him after few days when they feared there would be no end to these nightmares.
“Mustapha consulted imams and faqirs, and performed every ritual they advised to appease the restless spirit, even arranged animal slaughter as a sacrifice. With no escape from the nightly commotion, Mustapha moved out with his family to Diwania in the south. A later rumor said he went insane and met a tragic end.
“After ten years, the house changed ownership. The new buyer was another rich sheikh, Ahmed, from a mountain tribe. While getting the house refurbished, his servants cleaned the whole place, the furniture, the antiquated stuff covered with dirt and waste. They suspected that there were pieces of broken bones and dead pigeons in the trash they threw away from the upstairs rooms.
“Ahmed heard scary noises the same night, a banging of doors followed by painful cries. Believing in djinns and their power, he brought sacrificial animals to please the spirits and drive them away. His servants claimed that they had sighted at night a shadowy figure of a woman.
“As there was no stopping of the nightly disturbances, the frightened wife of Ahmed showed signs of acute nervousness. Advised by a faqir after a ritual, Sheikh Ahmed dared the spirit one night to come out and leave the place. But not long after that, he, too, showed signs of a psychotic disorder, claiming to be constantly followed by a tormented spirit, and behaving menacingly until his own painful end. Soon, the house was on the market for lease, the latest owner engaged Rashid to act on his behalf, preferring anonymity for himself. Our company was the first to lease it through Rashid.”
Joseph stopped but Brandon appeared lost in his thoughts. Joseph then added, “Rashid dropped a hint that the owner of the house is the heir of Sheikh Ahmed.”
Brandon grimaced, “I wouldn’t believe what is being dished out by these people... quite bewildering.” Getting up to leave, he said, “Let’s keep away from them and see how best to deal with it.”
“Of course,” Joseph agreed, and saw Brandon close the door after stepping out.
* * *
At home in the evening, Celia was in her natural self, she discussed her next book with the publishing agent when he had called. She gave a brief outline of her next project to Brandon, who showed interest and appeared relaxed, but remained uneasy after what Joseph had told him. They were tired and decided to go to bed soon.
It was near midnight when Celia began to keep shifting in the bed. Soon, a creepy sound disrupted her. Instead of switching on the light, she silently woke up Brandon, asking him to listen carefully. They heard footsteps moving in the lobby upstairs. A scary noise followed, the doors of the rooms opened and banged, a loud howling mixed with sorrowful shriek followed. A female scream with heavy footsteps came closer as if descending in pitch darkness through the stairs to the first floor. Brandon and Celia kept listening. An eerie silence prevailed for few moments.
It was broken by the sound of a commotion; running footsteps, doors of rooms being slammed with erratic sharp wailing. They heard a slithering sound as if someone had passed through their bedroom on way to the bathroom.
Brandon jumped up from the bed to light up the room but the switches won’t work. He gave the bedside flashlight to Celia and, holding a candle, looked into the bathroom. In the silence, he heard someone breathing heavily over his shoulders, the candle light was snuffed out. Lighting it again, and finding the bathroom empty, he turned to Celia in the bed. She made a loud cry, “Listen, the rustling sound, someone whizzed past!”
Brandon moved toward the door opening to the lobby, there were distinct footsteps that were retreating. They travelled fast through the dark stairs and faded out while moving up. The slamming of the doors followed with a noise that ended up with a faint cry.
Brandon found the light switches working thereafter but could find nothing. Celia, terrified, was in bed with a pale face. Hugging her to calm down, he felt a wave of fright crawling up his own spine. They remained awake until the morning hours.
“I can’t put up with this. I’m not going to live in the house.” Celia told Brandon in the morning. “It is frightening, and we don’t know where it’s going to lead us.” Looking into Brandon’s eyes, she asked in a shaky voice, “Aren’t you troubled?”
“I am, indeed, my dear, very much.” Brandon admitted and pondered their options. After finishing coffee, he said, “Let’s move out of this place. We needn’t put up with it. It’s very upsetting, rather shocking.”
After picking up the essential items, they headed to the same hotel from where they had moved two weeks back.
Brandon asked Joseph to wait for him in his office. he knew that Joseph was invariably early at his desk. Joseph waited in Brandon’s room. Brandson entered with harried looks. When he began speaking, Joseph bent forward to listen attentively.
Brandon said in a somber tone, “We had quite an unnerving experience last night,” and then recounted it in detail.
Finding Joseph equally perplexed, he added, “With all the stories that have come up, living in the house is extremely distracting, it’s getting on my nerves. And Celia is determined not to step into the house. The hotel where we’ve moved in again is okay, at least until we solve this puzzle, but we need to think what would be the best option now.”
“Yes, I’ll be at it immediately,” Joseph assured and withdrew.
* * *
Back in his room, a worried Joseph went over the gripping account and revisited the stories told by Rashid and Kassim. He also recounted how he had heard and always ignored similar tales of spirits and ghouls after he joined this project. What a scary experience, he thought, but what’s the way out, and who could shed more light?
Heading off home in the evening, Joseph went over the possible ramifications. The company depended on Brandon’s expertise and invaluable experience for executing the multi-billion dollar project. He said to himself, “I should prevent any ghost story making its way to headquarters or to the press. It would be awkward and embarrassing to handle and would do no good to the image of the company.”
He called Rashid to meet him again.
* * *
The next day, Brandon had troubled looks when he was with Joseph. Taking a seat across his table, his words showed grave concern, “Celia thinks she slept well last night in the hotel. But keeping a watch, I noticed her move toward the dressing mirror in the adjacent room. It was past midnight. ‘What’s going on?’ I asked her.
“She stared at me in silence. Her pale face bore no expression.
“‘Do you hear me, Celia?’ I asked loudly.
“She didn’t seem to hear me, and turned to the mirror, whispering as if she was talking to someone. It was too puzzling. In few moments, she returned to the bed quietly and fell asleep.”
“Did you ask her in the morning to explain what she was doing at midnight?”
“I did ask, but she was certain she was sound asleep the whole night. She was fresh in the morning.”
“Which means...?” Joseph scratched his head.
Brandon just looked at Joseph, expecting him to complete his remark.
“So, it’s still on,” Joseph looked baffled. After a brief silence, he added, “I had better act fast. I’m going to Rashid.”
“Tell him to be discreet.”
Joseph drove to the estate agent. He told Brandon’s new experience even after moving to the hotel. Rashid was thoughtful and silent.
Feeling exasperated, Joseph said, “Listen, if it’s the case of a tormented spirit, couldn’t there be a way to persuade it to leave, or whether a good spirit couldn’t drive away the evil one?”
“My grandfather, Haji Mejid, knows more about these things. I’m less interested, but let’s go to him.” Looking at his watch, he added, “This time, he must be in the company of his old friends at the chaikhana.”
Chaikhanas were the tea houses, frequented mostly by the elderly people for gossiping, exchanging news over tea in small tumblers, and smoking aromatic tobacco in colorful narghileh which they passed around. In an atmosphere of warmth and camaraderie, they greeted each other and learned the latest goings-on. Sometimes, small groups would gather in one corner to engage in poetry reading sessions.
Rashid spotted his grandfather in conversation with his old friends, wrinkly faces, frail bodies stooped with age, long snow-white beards and loose white headgear, wearing dishdasha, the long robe of males.
“Aslaam Walekum.” Joseph bowed in respect when Rashid introduced him to the elders.
The pleasantries followed and Rashid explained in his dialect the whole story. The elders talked among themselves which, Joseph was certain, had to do with the house. Rashid was asked to do more explaining which he did. Finally, they all nodded in favor of a ritual procedure.
Turning to Joseph, Rashid said, “Haji Abdul, my grand-uncle, offers to help. Tomorrow is Friday, you meet him at his house after prayers.”
Joseph bowed his head in appreciation of his benevolent offer. Raising his right hand over his chest, in respect to all, he got up to leave.
* * *
The next day, Joseph was welcomed at the small cottage by a young boy, the nephew of Haji Abdul. In a laid-back style, Haji Abdul was seated on a low-level dewan set upon a carpet on the floor with two long cushions on the sides to lean upon. He appeared way past his eighties but, as Rashid said, was in possession of sharp mental faculties. Joseph felt his gentle smile radiated the serenity that had a soothing effect on everything surrounding him.
After his nephew served the tea, Haji asked him to explain to Joseph.
“Usta’ad — the respected teacher — says today is holy day and good. He and I go to your house after dinner time. We bring our items, but you prepare a clean place, your dress clean and keep ready the items I write for you on paper. And, Usta’ad says you wait in silence there.”
Joseph called Brandon to brief him on Haji’s gesture. “Since you had the direct experience, I suggest you be there as well, though I’m not sure you might be needed.”
In the evening, Joseph picked up Brandon from the hotel and headed to the haunted house.
Joseph cleaned a central spot in the spacious living hall in the house and laid a rug over it. He had brought incense sticks, water, grains of rice, flowers, a yard of black cloth and a broom. He dimmed the light and suggested Brandon wait in the adjoining room.
It was just before the midnight when Haji knocked at the door. He was accompanied by his nephew, who was carrying a small leather bag. After carefully surveying the place to satisfy himself with the setting, he glanced over the articles Joseph had placed before him. He determined the direction to face and took his seat after rearranging the articles.
The nephew opened his bag and spread a small piece of velvety, dark red cloth in front of Haji. He placed an old copper lamp with a half-burnt cotton wick on a small metal stool, a raised platform. In a carved copper goblet kept in a metallic saucer, he poured a little water and scattered the rose petals into it with few grains of rice.
Finally, he took out, with a reverential gesture, a black shining oval-shaped stone and placed it in front of the saucer. With closed eyes, Haji had begun chanting verses.
Glancing over the preparations once more, Haji lighted the lamp and the pack of the incense sticks with his shaky hands and fixed them on a rustic stand. Closing his eyes, he resumed chants in deep voice.
Soon Joseph saw the rising gray plume of incense smoke with heavy fragrance make distinct patterns: strange moving patterns against a dim backdrop of darkness. Haji quickly began chanting more loudly. His voice had a deeper pitch and an echo that vibrated before dissipating.
“Calling the spirits,” whispered his nephew into Joseph’s ears.
Haji’s chants stopped when a rustling sound emanated over the place. He spoke words, as if conversing with someone he could sense but not see. At the end, he put more rice grains with rose petals into the goblet and bowed his head when a swishing sound was heard that vanished into the rising aromatic smoke toward the ceiling.
Turning to Joseph, Haji conveyed through his nephew, “Two spirits restless in the house wait for deliverance. Their death before time. They are angry when you disturb. Now free and go.”
“Wait a minute, there was only one woman who died here, we were told.” Joseph asked.
Haji assured that the wandering spirit of the young woman who died untimely in the harem of the emir also met the spirit of the woman who died here. Spirits are friends, but dislike disturbance.
“But hasn’t it been a long time since the woman in the harem disappeared?”
Without turning to Haji, the nephew himself clarified, “Their times are different from our times.” Handing the goblet to Joseph, he said, “Take it and put it near the flowers outside tomorrow.”
After Haji got up to leave, the nephew put his articles in the bag. They bade farewell. Joseph escorted them to the fence in the moonlight and offered to drive them home, but the nephew helped Haji to get onto the horse cart. Joseph watched it disappear in the distance.
Relaxed, Joseph went to the adjacent room where a tense Brandon awaited him. He described the ritual and all that transpired with Haji. A cautious relief came over both with a sense of mixed feelings.
“I will plant a beautiful sapling for it,” Joseph was showing the goblet to Brandon. After a pause, he exclaimed, “What a life...!”
Looking away, Brandon sighed, “Yeah, sometimes more complex than what it looks like.”
* * *
The next day, Joseph helped Brandon and Celia move back to the house. They had supper together. Celia was cheerful. They stayed awake, chatting and drinking until the early hours of the morning. As Joseph was leaving, he heard Celia telling her husband, “Shouldn’t the first chapter of my ‘Road to Sulemaniah’ be ‘The Curse of the Haunted House’?” Joseph smiled.
Sipping morning coffee with her husband the next day, a sporting Celia asked, “Do you believe in curses?”
“No, that would be escapism.”
“Oh, don’t know how to answer that.” Brandon’s voice was slow and serious when he said, “I believe in the laws of nature, eternally fair and rational. With that backdrop, I admire the remark of an Indian monk: ‘Things are dead in themselves. We breathe life into them, then we run after them or run away from them’.”
Copyright © 2019 by Mohan Pandey