Posted by Zubier Abdullah on 17-02-2020
Originally published in Robbed of Sleep Vol. 5 in December 2016
All of this happened and I wish, how deeply I wish, it had not. Sometimes on long, dark nights staring up at the fan in my little flat on the east side, all I am left with are my regrets. Everything that happened back then was my fault and I can see the intervening years between pass by like mile markers on the highway.
Shall we have a beer then? I have heard that Edgar serves the finest beer in all of Dublin and I would like to test that claim.
My name is Nikhesh – I am sure that this must seem an uncommon name to you and truth be told, I wouldn’t mind if you would call me Nik. Bengali, Indian, Pakistani and the whole smorgasbord of Farsi inspired names are often difficult to pronounce for the unaccustomed tongue. No apologies necessary my friend. Please sit down.
Apologies. You seem to be a bit taken back by my eloquence, the rapt way you are admiring me without really listening gives it all away. A bit of background then.
As I have said before, I am Nik I would have pronounced the last name but it has over nine syllables in it so I doubt you would remember it in the morning. As for my verbosity, I was a teacher – Professor actually, if you want to use the honorific. Professor of English Literature, focusing on the Post colonial diaspora and the imprint of English on the Bengali subconscious.
Ahh yes, I see Edgar has brought us two pitchers of Guinness – quite possibly the finest thing that Ireland has given the world. Delicious – don’t you love it how it slips smoothly down the throat and yet leaves a satisfying bite behind?
I drink. Don’t let it distract you. Despite my beard, I am not much of a Muslim and thus I drink from the waters of Lethe every once in a while, when the mood strikes me. More often than not, the mood strikes me around this time of year, when the leaves have just started to resign themselves to a slow death and have become engulfed in fire.
When I was thirty, when this happened, I was happy or rather, I was content. My state of mind was like the geography of my home country –Bangladesh -- flat for the most part, with mild swells and depressions here and there.
My face was unlined and my hair was not marred with streaks of silver as now. I was the youngest Professor in the Department of English at Dhaka University. While all of my classmates were still toiling over their doctorates, I had finished mine and landed a job at the best University in the country. My parents were thrilled, of course, and were in a rush to marry me off to some eligible girl.
Now, now, don’t give me that look. Things are done differently over there. The individualism that permeates every facet of the western subconscious is much less pronounced there. While we are all our own men, we also serve firstly as epitomes of our family so their wishes sometimes supersedes our own. I was married to a girl who was the daughter of a family friend, from a rich background and a quite suitable match. Yet. Yet, after two years of this, even after the birth of my child, I was unhappy.
It was a listlessness that I cannot possibly describe. My wife, Shanila, had ceased to be my wife and was now a mother – my work was enjoyable but not thoroughly engaging. For six months, I felt my mind atrophying – the day would start and then, faster than a leaf falling from a tree, it would end and nothing would have happened. Perhaps this is a common ailment endemic to men – this listlessness and quiet desperation that comes from not having any battles left to fight. I wished for a change, you see, some excitement and someone listened.
The Department was to have a Halloween party -- a large one. The preparations were made; orange balloons danced in the air like will-o’-wisps and I found myself begging my wife to go with me to the party. There would be dancing, it would be a chance for her to meet with my colleagues and, though I didn’t say it, there would be some alcohol as well. Perhaps, I dare say, there would be a return to a more amorous epoch in our married life.
She declined of course. She didn’t want to leave our child, Namira, all alone, despite my proposition that my parents would take care of the child for the scant few hours that we would be away. She did not relent and I found myself alone at the party, nursing a martini, watching the fairy lights strewn above like glittering stars.
It was not unpleasant.
There were scores of couples there – the University of Dhaka is a bastion of liberalness – old and young co-mingled, students and teachers danced the night away and the air was alive with a flowery redolence.
She tapped me on my arm and I felt as through wild electricity coursed through it for a split second. Her scent followed. The other aspects of that night – who was there, what was playing in the background or even the food – they all escape me but that smell is seared in the back of my mind.
She smelled like flowers, Chanel And smoke.
I turned around and saw her. I couldn’t begin to describe her to you -- how can you describe perfection and do it justice? I’ve tried, my friend to recreate the face n seared in my memory over the years and yet it falls short every time.
“Excuse me sir.” She asks, her voice husky and alive, in a way that seemed to eclipse everything around us. “would you care to dance?”
I almost dropped the drink. Unlike how it is here, things are done much more differently in Bangladesh. Women aren’t so forward and yet here she was.
“I’m sorry but did I hear you correctly?”
“You did. I am offering you a dance. Would you like to take it?”
I looked into her eyes – pearl colored and shining with invitation. Should I have known then, that behind those opalescent eyes, which seemed to glow in the dusky gloom like that of a cat's, there existed only ruination?
I took her hand, admiring its gentle warmth in mine and allowed her to lead me to the dance floor. She wore a black dress – a salwar kameez and yet done in such a way that was ...unique. Her hair hung loosely over her shoulder in a braid and ended halfway down her back. She wore a backless dress, her skin was the color of coffee with a little too much cream mixed into it . Her hips swung invitingly as we moved towards the dance floor.
Truth be told, I was mesmerized – perhaps it was the alcohol that played a part in what happened that night but I doubt it. Rather, I will not stoop to using that as a crutch which will excuse my behavior – so many do. You have an expression in English -- punch drunk. That's how it felt right then – I felt as though I had left the binding confines of my little life and walked into the blinding realm of fairy tales.
She led me to the middle of the dance floor and guided my hands to her hips. I could feel the swell of her buttocks – the scintillating heat coming from just a scant few inches below my right hand. Her scent enveloped me and she looked at me with eyes full of promise. I felt myself hardening – like a teenager; her body was close enough for her to feel it as well. I was embarrassed and I could feel myself going red in the face but she just hugged me closer.
A woman's smile – it contains a world of meaning and some men spend their whole lives trying to comprehend its whirlwind secrets.
We didn't talk for a long time – we danced; dancing is life, my friend. Our bodies swayed to the rhythm of the music, counterpointed by the shuffle of footsteps around us and a dull murmur and hushed whispers of the other guests as they watched and yet we danced on.
What you should remember though that, while dancing is life, it can also spell death.
Another for the gentleman and I, Edgar. Talking such a tale is thirsty work. I hope that I am not taking up too much of your time? If so my apologies – where I am from it is customary for hours to pass in desultory conversation with glasses upon glasses of sweet frothy tea being drunk and a smattering of cigarette ashes being left behind like corpses after a battle.
A full moon had risen – hanging in the sky like a coin. Bathed in the moonlight, the two of us looked up at the sky and our faces came close. Too close – she looked at me and I looked at her and the thought of my wife and my child, sitting at home, Namira crawling around on the floor and my wife, valiantly trying to keep her from crying slipped out of my mind.
Our lips almost touched – her eyes glowed in the moonlight and for a strange moment, they looked almost feline. Feral.
She slipped her head back and said, in that dusky voice of hers “Are you sure about this?” I nodded.
“If we agree to do this, I will be taking everything from you.” My heart danced at the sound of those words, conjuring images of wanton sex and debauchery.
Everything could have meant anything.
I nodded to her. I didn't hesitate – that's what I keep ruminating over, on most of the nights that I still have left to me, smoking a cigarette till the embers touch my fingers – how I didn't hesitate at all.
She kissed me then – her tongue encircling mine and squeezing it in impossible ways. It felt as though sharp barbs were being jabbed into my tongue like acupuncture needles. My mouth filled with fire and I was swept apart on a wave of pure bliss.
She took me away from that place and I don't remember much after that. We made love – no calling it that would be a mockery of the act. The details escape me. What I do remember is this darkly sweet feeling suffusing every particle of my being – when I was one with her, it felt as though I was riding on waves of infinity and nothing else that mattered.
I woke up in the middle of the night in a strange bedroom. She was there as well – her back towards me. There was something wrong with it. Why is that the fruit we taste early in the evening seems cloying and rotten by night's end? There were a nest of cracks in her back – long perforations that looked more at home on a river bed . She was sitting on the edge of the bed, her voice giving off an inhuman noise. It sounded like a grotesque insectile hiss.
I blinked my eyes, wondering if this strange apparition in front of me was a nightmare and as I did, the cracks seemed to move, scuttling across her back like an army of insects. A low groan escaped her lips and the most awful smell of putrescence filled the room. My sleep went away almost instantly – my heart beat hard, beating a staccato rhythm in my chest like a military snare drum and I thought it was going to explode.
The thing –- what had been the girl turned around and where her face was supposed to be, there was a black void. An abyss. Her skin was cracking now and pus was oozing out like pungent lava. Her eyes shifted towards the center of her forehead and merged together.
Her eye – the one awful eye pulsed and hissed like steam from a radiator. She spoke in sepulchral intonations. At first I couldn't make out the sound over the pounding of my own heart yet the dead words – for I know in my heart of hearts that it was the language of the dead that she spoke in – I could understand those fragmented croaks perfectly.
A promise is a promise.
She started laughing. She laughed and laughed and I thought that I would go mad at that sound. There was no humanity in it.
I ran out of the door. When I stopped, it might have been a minute or maybe it was closer to an hour, I found myself back at the remains of the party. I found a corner and threw up – my stomach turned inside out and fell on the ground in wet chunks.
When I looked up, I saw a legion of black insects come crawling out of the ground to ingest the effluent. All of the insects, many legged blind monstrosities stood up on their haunches and started clicking their mandibles at me – a salute of the damned.
I ran again, as fast as I could back home with the sound of those mandibles clacking in my ears. A queer sense of unreality washed over me.
What had I done? What had happened – those were the questions that plagued me. I didn't sleep that night. Nor the next or the ones after; I called in sick from work and stayed home.
My wife nursed me back to health. God bless her – after all of the evil I have seen, it still amazes me that there are angels in the world. Yet there was no rest for me -- each time I closed my eyes, I could hear the mad exultation of the insects lauding me.
Yet I managed to put the events of that night behind me – I recovered, at least physically. A year had passed since that evening and life had resumed back to its normal rhythms. I had done my best to forget that night; my drinking had lessened though the strain on our marriage caused by those wild few months did not . I never found out if my wife suspected that I had had an affair – sometimes I would catch her going through my phone and my pockets, trying to find evidence yet there was none.
At the end of a long day, as the stifling heat of the monsoon receded, I went home and found the insects waiting for me. They were not there when I closed the door – I can tell you this much. When I entered the study it was empty except for the books and the furniture and yet, when the door swung on its hinges, I found myself surrounded.
Millions of those black insects seemed to materialize out of thin air – I screamed and that seemed to excite them. Their mandibles clicked in that alien tongue, reminding me of the woman's voice that night – the language of the dead. They rushed towards me, their feelers waving up in the air. I screwed my eyes shut, hoping that they wouldn't eat me alive. I had seen a movie where one of the bad guys was feasted upon by ants and thought that it was the most painful way to die.
Instead they waited. They waited for me there, standing up, their beady eyes staring. I realized something was wrong perhaps a moment too late – the insects looked at me with the same gleeful anticipation as a man would when he is awaiting the fireworks to go off.
My wife and daughter – they were here too. Normally at this time Namira would be watching television and my wife would be preparing dinner and yet those sounds were not there now. Only the mad sounds of the insects. I felt myself possessed by a mad rage and kicked at the bugs, squashing them with a satisfying crunch. Dark blood squirted out of their bodies like ketchup and painted the floor.
I rushed out of the room and ran upstairs. The stairs were filled with these black insects as well, scuttling under my feet like a moving ocean. The room at the top of the stairs was locked and on the outside strange symbols were embossed on. It hurt to look at those grotesque symbols – their alien architecture was commensurate to the perversity of the mind that designed them. I rushed at the door, throwing my full body weight against it and the door crashed open on its hinges. The sound of it was like a gunshot.
What I saw upon entering the room is something that still follows me, like the unmistakable aroma of tobacco that follows a lifelong smoker.
My wife was suspended from the ceiling, a thin coil of fire around her neck. She was not dead – her body was still contorting and spasming in strange arcs. The front of her dress was drenched in blood – the walls were painted in it and on the floor, there was a pool of it that had to be an inch deep. Out of that pool, there was that mad eye – the vertical slit like a cats staring all around the room in a frenzy. I couldn't believe she was still alive but the look of agony in her eyes – the silent desperate pleading in them told me she was.
I must have stood there for days – my feet were rooted and my throat dry. I wanted to throw up, I wanted to get down on my hands and knees and pray to Allah to take this abomination away from me but I knew that was futile. No merciful god could allow such abominations to walk on the earth. No just god.
There was a butcher's knife nearby. We didn't own such a thing. I've pondered the events of that night and I knew that the knife was planted there my friend. As sure as I know that the sun will rise tomorrow, I knew that the knife was left there for me and I was meant to use it.
Perhaps one final drink then? I know that I need it to finish the last stretch of this story. I took the knife, knowing in my heart of hearts what I needed to do. And yet, I resisted. How could I? It was inhuman to even think so, let alone do so. Before I plunged the knife into the mangled remains of her heart, she locked her eyes on me and those inhuman utterings came again. You will never see her again. You will never hear her laugh again. It is only beginning.
I plunged the knife into her, meeting almost no resistance. It was as though the body of my wife was nothing more than a scrim and underneath that scrim, there were darker possibilities. There was a jagged scream that seemed to come from the past and the future and then a great whoosh of air pushed me away. I heard my wife's voice for the last time and then the air seemed to explode into fire.
I woke up in the hospital in a world of pain. I remember my doctor telling me what had happened and me nodding through the morphine and agreeing with him. I remember the detectives coming to take a statement about the gas explosion that had happened. One of them, a stern man with a limp asked me what I had done to my daughter.
I cried. They didn't mention the insects though. How could they? Perhaps the insects were something only I could see. I moved all over, trying to put my past behind me and yet, the years have taught me that it was a fool's errand.
Last call is it Edgar? Of course, yes I will pay the bill and do keep a sum for yourself, won't you? Isn't your daughter going to be starting her university next year in the fall? Here, I insist. Family is the most important thing we have and a man's job is to ensure that they are taken care of.
Come my friend. Would you be kind enough to walk me to my house? It is near here. A five minute walk by the waterside. Thank you.
I can tell that you disbelieve the story which have spent the evening telling you. I do not blame you. I have told this story numerous times over the years, to a great many people and more often than not, I could see them rolling their eyes. Perhaps it is my appearance that also plays a part – that I cannot be sure of. No, no. Don't assume I am accusing you of something – it is natural to be skeptical when you are told such a fantastical tale.
Over the years, I have dreamed of my daughter. I saw her, growing up, alive, happy, impossibly beautiful. Is it not funny how all of the beautiful things of the world are as fragile as glass? And after I see her, I am left with a message.
It's always been the same. I must tell someone my story. I must get that person to believe that what had happened is real and if I do, I can see my daughter again.
She gave me ten years to do this and I believe the ten years are almost up. Funny how a decade can seem like a lifetime and a lifetime can seem like a day.
We are almost here at last. Yes, I thank you for all that you have done and for listening to my story. I hope that whatever your answer to the next question, you found it entertaining. Perhaps this might be a story you would pass on to your own children as well.
Would you care for an aperitif? A cup of coffee or some tea. Perhaps a nightcap? No? All right then. It seems we are to part ways my friend. Thank you for listening and now I will ask you something.
Please be truthful.
Do you see the insects all around us too?