This story is loosely based on a story that I have grown up hearing (in spite of the fear of ghosts, I begged my aunt to tell me horror stories, and then refused to go to the loo alone). My aunt told me this was a real incident that happened in the family, but I can’t be sure she wasn’t just making it up. There is a popular belief (or superstition depending on the viewpoint) in my part of the world that women and girls should not leave their hair open after dusk; you may want to remember that while you read this story.
“Women beware – don’tcha leave yer hair open after dusk!”
A Short Story
When Shelley was fifteen, she had hair that reached her waist. Girls with long hair were traditionally forbidden to keep their hair open, especially after dusk, but Shelley wouldn’t listen to any of her elder sisters’ plea to do so. Neither did she listen to her mother. She went about the neighbourhood, quick on her steps, climbing trees in people’s yards, picking guavas and eating them while sitting on the crotch of the tree. All the while, her hair swayed with the wind.
“Leave your hair open like this, and the devil will possess you,” said the neighbourhood aunts. But Shelley wasn’t the one to budge.
One day, as dusk waited to turn into a deeper shade of dark, Shelly was sitting on the guava tree in her neighbour’s backyard, chewing the tasty fruit when she felt a cold wind shiver her skin. From the houses came the holy sound of conchs being blown; women were performing their evening prayers. Shelley’s hair gathered around her face with the gust of wind. When the chill was gone, she felt weak and hungry, it was as if she had not eaten anything in ages. The guava in her hand was half-finished, but she hated the taste of it inside her mouth. She craved something hot and thick. Something that would make her feel energetic.
Shelley jumped off the guava tree, a good ten feet high. She landed on the ground easily. Not once did she wonder how jumped from such height – she had always climbed down the branches. But jumping seemed the natural thing to do now.
Inside, her hunger grew. She felt weak and powerful at the same time. With steps as large as four feet wide, she walked to her house.
In the kitchen, Polly, her sister, was marinating chicken in a paste of salt, garlic and turmeric. Her mother was at the oven, stirring something.
Before Shelley knew, her hand reached for the raw meat. She put a leg-piece in her mouth. Vigorously, she chewed it, crushing the bones noisily. It tasted okay, but the salt and turmeric ruined it all. The warmth of the blood was gone from the meat.
“Geez, Shelley! What did you just do?” Polly’s eyes were as wide as saucers. She had frozen in her place, one hand that had risen to remove the locks of hair falling on her eyes was still in the air.
Shelley stared at her sister for a whole thirty seconds, but she could not process why Polly looked so scared. Her mouth was salivating now. She needed to eat more, but the chicken would not do. She needed something with blood. She was so thirsty.
In a split second, her feet took flight and she was gone.
For two days, there was no sign of Shelley. Her family was anxious. Her mother cried all day long. A missing report was filed at the police station.
Neighbours came asking after her absence. When they learnt what Shelley had been doing moments before her disappearance, the women screamed, “She has been possessed by the demon. Oh, how many times we told her to tie her hair. Leaving that long hair open on evenings and sitting on the guava trees like a ghost, no wonder the demon possessed her.”
“My dear Ranu,” said an old woman with no teeth to Shelley’s mother, “you daughter has most definitely been possessed by a demon. You must call the ojha now. Only he can save your daughter.”
So her mother went to her father and relayed the neighbour’s advice. In the evening of the second day, the ojha was summoned. The ojha was a tall man of over six feet. He wore black robes and had vermillion stain all over his forehead. His eyes were darkened with kohl. His face was bearded and a thick, bushy moustache crowded above his upper lip. He wore a necklace of rudraksh seeds. The same also formed wristbands on both of his hands. He lived in a shack near the burning ghat, where dead bodies were burned and the ashes were thrown into the river flowing beside. He was said to worship Goddess Kali and summon spirits on new moon nights, all alone by the river. He had a generous collection of human skulls in his shack, which formed a shrine and an instrument to summon the spirits. He was the one and only person in the village who could remove evil spirits.
As soon as he stepped onto the threshold, the ojha cried, “I smell Death in this air. It is rotten. Evil lurks near.” His voice was cold and deep; it sent chills through Shelley’s sisters and mother.
At night, the ojha arranged materials to make a holy fire. “Depending on how near evil is, the wood will catch fire”, the man said to the family. “I can sense that it will come soon. You all go inside the house now. It is going to be a long night.”
The family huddled inside the house. They had no sleep in their eyes. Shelley’s mother kept crying, fainting occasionally. The girls kept sprinkling water over her face to recover her.
When daylight came, the house was silent. At some odd hour in the black night the family had fallen asleep. They woke to the loud shriek of the ojha.
“O come near and the fire will burn you, you witch! Tell me who you are.”
The family rushed outside. Shelley was standing in the front yard. Her hair was all over her face. She was gritting her teeth. “Eeeeaaaaaah!” she cried, shaking her head like a madwoman. When the hair parted, they saw red marks at the edges of her lips. Her eyes were bloodshot, and she looked straight at the bright flames separating her and the ojha and her family. Her posture was defensive.
“O my God!” cried her mother, “Oh, what happened to my poor girl!” and fainted. She fell on the ground. The family turned to tend to her and Shelley took the opportunity to advance towards the ojha.
“Go away, Ojha!” she shrieked in a hoarse voice that was nothing like hers. It sent chills through the spine of the girls. Shelley’s father rushed inside to bring water for her mother.
“No,” cried the ojha in a louder voice, “Tell me who you are, or by the grace of Maa Kali, I will destroy you! Leave the poor girl, now.” The ojha sprinkled some powder in the fire and the flames rose higher.
The neighbours started to gather. They spoke in low voices, fear evident in their eyes. A baby began to cry in the mother’s lap. The mother quickly put the end of her sari to the baby’s mouth.
The noise distracted Shelley. She looked in the direction of the woman. At the instant, the ojha switched sides. He was beside Shelley now. He had a big broom in his hand. He began to hit Shelley with it. Shelley was unwavering at first. She was still looking in the woman’s direction.
“They killed me and my baby,” Shelley howled, “They killed my baby!”
“What are you talking about? Who are you? Tell us,” cried the ojha. His broom kept hitting Shelley mercilessly. “Tell us or I will destroy you!”
“I am Nihar’s wife. The bastard and his mother killed me.” Her eyeballs were at the inner edge of her eyes. She seemed lost in thoughts, and the hitting seemed to have no effect in her, though her skin was red now at the spots where she had been hit.
The crowd gasped at the mention of Nihar’s wife. She had been found dead in her in-law’s house three weeks back. On inspection, the cause of death was found to be poison. Her marriage was a failure. Her in-law’s abused her for dowry. The woman was five months pregnant when she died. There had been no police case as everyone assumed that she had taken the poison herself.
“Woman, I understand your sorrow. But why are you torturing this poor girl? Leave her body now!”
“No,” Shelley growled. She turned towards the ojha. Her eyes were bulging. She did not stop the man hitting her, but she did not seem to let go either. “I will not leave the girl’s body. She was sitting on the tree with her hair open, swaying her legs when I found her! Her body is mine now. I will not leave her.”
In a sharp movement, the ojha dropped the broom and picked up a copper pot containing holy water of river Ganges. He threw handfuls of the water on Shelley. The effect was instantaneous. Shelley shivered as if she had been struck by electricity. In moments, she fell on the ground, writhing vigorously.
“Tell me woman, will you leave the girl’s body now? Or you need more medicine?” The ojha proceeded to heat an iron rod in the fire.
“No, no, no! I will go away. Do not torture me no more. I will leave the girl!”
“Give us an indication that you are going away! Break a branch from the teak tree to let us know.”
The audience watched in awe and fear. Suddenly, Shelley’s body rose in the air and she fell down with a thump.
Her mother recovered. “What happened?” she mumbled. Remembering, she cried again. “What happened to Shelley? Where is my baby?” Her father tried to calm her down, patting her head.
Suddenly, a huge branch of the teak tree near the fence cracked. It fell with the loud thud.
The ojha bent down near Shelley quickly. He sprinkled some more water over her, applying it on the spots where the broom had hit her. “She is gone now! Take your daughter inside. She will recover soon.”
Soon enough, Shelley stirred. When she opened her eyes they were no more bloodshot.
© 2015 Arpita Pramanick