by Gustav Meyrink
translated by Michael Wooff
The opal that Miss Hunt was wearing on her finger was universally admired.
“I inherited it from my father,” she said, “who served for a long time in Bengal, and it used to belong to a Brahmin.” She stroked the great luminous stone with the tips of her fingers. “You only see fire like this in Indian jewels. I don’t know if it’s the way it’s cut or the way it’s lit internally, but sometimes I get the impression from its gleam of mobility, of restlessness, like a living eye.”
“Like a living eye,” Mr. Jennings echoed thoughtfully.
“Does that strike a chord, Mr. Jennings?”
Concerts, balls, what was on at the theatre, all sorts of things were being talked about, but the conversation kept coming back to this Indian opal.
“I could tell you something about these stones, about these so-called stones,” Mr. Jennings concluded, “but I fear that Miss Hunt might be put off forever from having this ring in her possession. If you can bear with me a moment, I’ll search out a manuscript in these papers I’ve brought with me.”
The group was on tenterhooks.
“Here it is. Listen to this. What I’m going to read to you is a section from my brother’s travel notes, something that we both of us experienced in India, which we decided not to publish.”
* * *
From Mahabalipuram, a narrow strip of jungle juts out right as far as the sea. Canal-like waterways, laid out by the government, crisscross the countryside from Madras to nearly as far as Trichinopoly, and yet the hinterland is unexplored, a veritable wilderness, impenetrable, a breeding ground for jungle fever.
Our expedition had just assembled and our Tamil servants were unloading the numerous tents, boxes and cases from the boats to have them transported by natives to a town built on rocks, Mahabalipuram, through dense paddy fields where, here and there, groups of Palmyra palms loomed up like islands in a heaving, bright green sea.
Colonel Stuart, my brother Hargrave and myself immediately took possession of one of the small temples, which, hewn out of the rock face itself, or rather carved, are veritable miracles of ancient Dravidian architecture. The fruit of incomparable labour by pious Hindus, they may have listened for centuries to the hymns and chants of the exalted disciples of Vishnu. Now they serve for the Brahminic cult of Shiva, as do the seven holy pagodas, chiselled out of solid rock, with elevated halls supported by columns.
From the plain there arose gloomy mist, floating over rice fields and meadows and dissolving the contours of humpbacked oxen going home, pulling roughly made Indian carts through a rainbow haze. It was a mixture of light and mysterious twilight that lay heavy on the senses and weighted down the soul with dreams like a magical fragrance made up of jasmine and lilac blossoms.
In the chasm at the way up to these rocks our Mahratta sepoys had encamped in their flamboyant uniforms and their red and blue turbans, and, like a roaring hymn of praise by the sea to Shiva the Destroyer, the sounds of breaking waves hummed and resounded in the openings of the pagodas arrayed in isolation all along the shore.
Louder and more threatening the noise of the waves rose to our ears as day gave way to night behind the hills and a night wind started to howl through the ancient halls.
The servants had brought torches to our temple and now betook themselves to the village to be with their countrymen. We illuminated with the torches every nook and cranny. Many dark tunnels made their way through walls of rock and fantastic statues of gods dancing, palms outstretched, their fingers displayed in mysterious positions, covered the temple’s entrances with their shadows as if they were guarding them.
How few people know that these bizarre figures, their order and position in relation to each other, the number and height of the columns and the mysteries of the lingam hint at depths unprecedented, of which we in the west can scarcely conceive.
Hargrave showed us an ornament on a pedestal, a staff with twenty-four knots, on which, to left and right, cords hung that split further down. It was a symbol representing a human spine and in wall frescos next to it there were explanations of the ecstasies and out-of-body experiences that the yogi on the way to acquiring wonderful powers shares in when he concentrates his thoughts and feelings on the relevant parts of the spinal column.
“This called Pingala, Great Sunbeam,” our interpreter Akhil Rao confirmed in his broken English.
At this Colonel Stuart grabbed my arm: “Quiet. Can you hear something?”
We strained our ears towards a tunnel that led into darkness, hidden by a colossal statue of the goddess Kali.
The torches crackled - other than that, deathly silence.
It was a silence lying in wait for us, a hair-raising silence where the soul trembles and feels that some mysterious horror is about to explode into one’s life and of necessity hasten an inevitable sequence of murderous consequences from the dark realm of the unknown, from corners and niches.
In such moments groaning anguish is wrung from the heart’s rhythmic hammering. It is like a word, like the dreadful babbling gurgle of one who is deaf and dumb: Ugg - ger, Ugg - ger, Ugg - ger.
We listened in vain. The noise had stopped.
“It sounded like a cry from deep underground,” the colonel whispered.
It seemed to me as if the statue of Kali, the cholera demon, moved. Under the flickering flames of the torches the six arms of the monster swayed and the eyes that were painted black and white flared up like the gaze of a madwoman.
“Let’s go out into the open, to the temple entrance,” suggested Hargrave. “This is a terrible place.”
The chasm was bathed in green light like an incantation in stone.
The moonlight glittered in broad stripes over the sea like a giant white-hot sword, the point of which was lost in the distance.
We lay down to rest on the ledge. There was soft sand in niches and not a breath of air. Genuine sleep eluded us.
The moon rose higher and the shadows cast by the pagodas and stone elephants shrank on the white rocky ground to the size of turtles.
“Before the depredations of the Moguls, all these statues of gods abounded in jewels. There were necklaces of emeralds, eyes of onyx and opal,” said Colonel Stuart, dropping his voice, not sure if I was asleep or not.
I gave no answer. The only sound to be heard was the sound of Akhil Rao’s heavy breathing.
Suddenly we all jumped up, horribly awake. A terrifying cry issued from the temple: a short, threefold roar or burst of laughter with an echo reminiscent of breaking glass and metal.
My brother tore a burning brand from the wall and we pressed down into a dark tunnel.
There were four of us. What was there to fear?
Soon Hargrave threw the torch away, for the tunnel opened out into an artificial drop without a roof. The latter, lit up by the harsh light of the moon, led to a cave.
The light of a fire became visible behind some columns and, covered by shadows, we crept nearer to it.
Flames were blazing on a low sacrificial altar and, in the circle of light that emanated from them, a fakir was reeling, hung with the gaudy rags and chains of bones of a Bengali worshipper of Durga.
He was conjuring something up and throwing his head around with sobs and whines in the manner of a whirling Dervish, to right and left, with breakneck speed, then lifting his head so his white teeth caught the light.
At his feet lay two corpses with their heads cut off, and we very quickly — from the clothes they were wearing — recognized the bodies of our two sepoys. It must have been their death cries, coming up from below, that had sounded so horrible to us.
Colonel Stuart and the interpreter threw themselves at the fakir, but were by him flung back immediately against the wall.
The strength that dwelt in the emaciated form of this ascetic holy man was incomprehensible and, before we could jump on him again, he had already fled to the cave’s entrance.
We found behind the altar the decapitated heads of the two Mahratta sepoys.
* * *
Mr. Jennings folded up the manuscript. “There’s a sheet of paper missing here. I’ll tell you how the story ends myself. The expression on the faces of the dead men was indescribable. My heart still misses a beat today when I recall the horror we were all subjected to back then.
“We could hardly call it fear, the expression we saw on the features of those murdered men. It was more like a mad, contorted laugh. The lips and the nostrils were flared, the mouth was wide open and as for the eyes... the eyes were terrible. Imagine that the eyes were bulging. They showed neither iris nor pupil and shone and sparkled with a radiance like this stone here, on Miss Hunt’s ring.
“And when we investigated further, it proved to be the case they really had turned into opals. A later chemical analysis of them gave the same result. How those eyeballs had been able to turn into opals will forever remain a mystery for me. A superior Brahmin I once asked about it affirmed it could be brought about by the chanting of a tantric spell and the process was over as quick as a flash. The change took place in front of you, there and then, but who can believe that?
“He then added that all Indian opals came from the same source and that they brought bad luck to whosoever wore them, for they were all, without exception, sacrifices to the goddess Durga, the destroyer of all organic life, and should be left as that.”
The audience sat stunned in silence. Miss Hunt was playing with her ring.
“Do you really believe, Mr. Jennings, that opals bring bad luck for that reason?” she said finally. “If you do, please destroy this one!”
Mr. Jennings took a pointed piece of iron that was lying on the table as a paperweight and tapped upon the opal gently till it fell apart in shell-like, shining slivers.