The Darkness of Truth
It was past nine at night in our tiny village in Kerala. I had finished helping my sister clear up after dinner and was now looking forward to snuggling in bed with my new comic and the lamp I was going to borrow from my brother’s room. That's when the peal of the doorbell startled me.
I saw my father get up from the sofa and open the door. There was no one outside. A little annoyed he locked the door and went back to his WWF match.
Ten minutes later, the bell rang again. This time my brother got up to open the door. There was no one about. My father and brother grabbed their torches and went out for a round around the house. They were back soon, with nothing to report.
Several minutes later, while trying to open my father’s locked drawer in his study to see if I could try his new pen, I felt a cold finger curl into the collar of my nightdress and tug. I screamed. Piggy, my best friend and first cousin who lived next door, shushed me immediately. He was perched on the window grills and I wedged myself behind the bookcase to hide.
I clutched my mouth with one hand and my racing heart with the other, and Piggy and I waited to see if my family would rush into the study. They were still absorbed in the wrestling match.
“What did you do that for? I nearly died of fright!” I hissed.
“Come out, I need to show you something.”
“What? No!” The night was inky black behind him, the streetlight too weak even to make my cousin visible. Instead, he was illuminated by the light in the study. “I’ll get into trouble. Besides, it’s scary this time of night. What’s wrong with you?”
“Come, please, please, I really need to show you something.”
“Show me tomorrow. After school.”
“Tell me what it is.”
“NO!” I turned to look at the study doorway and Piggy lowered his voice, “You have to see for yourself. I don’t know what to make of it!”
After a while, unable to make Piggy go back home and there being a possibility of us getting caught pfaffing and our ears being twisted, I figured the quietest way out was through the kitchen. Piggy waited for me beside the kitchen door and we walked carefully to the side gate. Since it had a padlock on it, we had to climb over the gate. I forgot to remind Piggy to watch the step, or the lack of it, and he fell heavily into the ground below. I couldn’t catch the rude word that he muttered.
I climbed down slowly in the dark and we picked our way painfully through the pineapple patch. The light of the torch we had was very weak, but at least the moon was out. We finally got into the adjoining field and found a portion of the barbed wire fence wide enough to heft ourselves onto the road.
Here things were not much better. Today was one of the days the street lights didn’t work – which was good for me. I was afraid my brother would want to come out for a smoke and a stroll.
We hurried down the road, fearful of being grabbed by those evil spirits that lurk in shadows. According to Amma, the shadows and the personages that inhabited them were especially meant for children that didn’t listen. Halfway down the road and before the three-way junction, Piggy pulled me into a small dirt lane. The short burst of heavy rain this evening had made the road slushy and we slid in the dark, until Piggy stopped at Ousephachayan’s house.
Ouseph Kuriakose was our fathers’ first cousin and his wife was our beloved Lilly teacher. The kids in school told us she was partial to us because she was our aunt and lived down the road from us.
We saw her every day at school, whenever she stopped by our homes to chat with our mothers and ahead of us on our way to church on Sunday mornings. Each Sunday she dressed in a well-starched cotton kasavu sari and walked three feet behind her husband.
Her steps would slow when she heard us. We’d run up to her and she’d put a finger to her lips, asking us to be silent, and give us a fruit or banana or a vada or a sweet. She was kind. And beautiful.
Piggy tried to find a spot at the boundary wall nearest to the kitchen window. The wall around the house was mossy and we couldn’t get a grip or keep our balance. Luckily for us, the neighbour was building a new room to his house. We lugged some of the bricks to the wall and stacked steps high enough for us to peer over the wall. It was hard work.
“Why can’t we just open the gate and go in?” I asked Piggy.
“The gate makes an awful lot of noise while opening and we’re not supposed to be out at this time of night, remember?” he whispered.
I prayed no one at home would see me when I got back. I wouldn’t be able to explain the sweat, the stink or the dried mud on my legs, feet and clothes.
Piggy had told me we had to wait. But, I was nervous. The neighbour’s dog was staring at us, wagging its tail warily. It was a poor hungry stray. He sniffed our legs but we ignored him and soon he tired of us and sat at the neighbour’s gate watching us.
So we waited. Perhaps an hour later, we saw a light appear in the kitchen and Lillymama appeared near the windows. She was carrying plates and serving dishes and depositing them in the kitchen sink.
This was it? We had come to watch Lillymama wash dishes? “So, what did you want me to see, Piggy?”
“How is it possible when there are so many mosquitoes!” I shook my body fretfully. There was no point to this.
“SSSHHHH! Uncle will come out and thrash us if he finds us here!”
That shut me up. Ousephachayan had a bad temper. We always kept a good distance away from him. He had knocked about my brother once and Appa and Uncle had nearly come to blows. Things were still awkward between them.
Suddenly we heard Ousephachayan shout for Lillymama. Piggy threw his leg over the wall and fell on his side inside the compound. I followed more cautiously, relieved to feel Piggy steadying me – his hand pushing my bum against the wall and sliding me downwards slowly. I slid against the wall, feeling moss and wet along my ribcage. Despite our efforts at not making noise, the wet gravel made a crunching noise under our feet. We walked over to a sitting room window. There was a tear in one of the curtains that covered the bottom half of the window and we were able to peep in.
Uncle, a goodlooking man in his 30s, was standing at the bookcase and had just run his hand over a glass panel. “There’s dust here. What do you do the whole day! There’s even dust on the books!” He yanked open the bookcase’s glass doors and pulled out books, flinging them on the ground and across the room.
I leaned into Piggy, feeling fearful. Lillymama’s head was down and she looked defeated.
“Clean this up! NOW!” Ousephachayan roared.
Piggy and I slammed into each other in fright and quickly crouched to our knees in the soft, wet flower bed.
After a while we raised our heads to peep in. Lillymama was hurriedly dusting each book and looked upset.
“Are you blind? There’s dust up there too. Go up and clean it!” Ousephachayan shouted.
Lillymama scrambled for a chair and stood on it to dust the top of the bookshelf. She started removing the books there too.
And suddenly our uncle was screaming again. “You’re spreading dust everywhere. What a mess! You can’t keep house, you’re useless!” and he viciously kicked the chair from under her and Lillymama fell to the floor.
I screamed. Piggy clapped his hand over my mouth and began dragging me through the flower bed and trying to pull me up to my feet. We could hear Ousephachayan running towards his front door and the bolts of the door being opened.
“Who’s there?” Ousephachayan shouted. He looked around the courtyard, which had one bare light bulb trying to stretch its weak light around the yard.
We ran to the side of the house. Ousephachayan picked up a stone and threw it in our direction. He could see us, but hadn’t recognised us. The stone hit Piggy in the back and he fell to the ground writhing in pain.
The large smooth stone Ousephachayan had thrown lay nearby. I threw the large stone back at my uncle and it hit him in the side of his stomach. I began to throw whatever I could find and I heard him bellow in pain as my missiles found their target. I hated Ousephachayan with all my heart, especially for what he had just done to Lillymama.
I felt Piggy pulling me backwards and we ran around the house. Luckily there was a narrow clear path near the flower beds that surrounded the house, and the moonlight helped. We came back to the sitting room window and peeped in on Lillymama from another window. She was back up on the chair and dusting the books quickly and trying to place them back on the bookshelves in an orderly way. She was crying. A sudden noise made her look in our direction. We stared at each other. There was no curtain in this window and just then Ousephachayan came in. She wiped her face with the end of her sari.
He raged about someone throwing stones at him and she hurried to fetch cotton and disinfectant to treat his wounds. He swore at Lillymama and twisted a fist full of her long hair in his hand and shook her head – angry at the pain from her dabbing disinfectant into his wounds.
A stone smashed through a nearby window and I shrieked and ducked behind the large jackfruit tree nearby.
I could see Piggy scrambling to get behind a large bush nearest the window he had smashed. Ousephachayan was out now, screaming in rage and rushing towards us. Piggy ran out from behind his cover, running towards the main gate. But Ousephachayan blocked his way, grabbed Piggy by his shirt collar and rained blows on him.
I rushed towards Piggy but Ousephachayan kicked me and I lay on the ground, holding my stomach, trying not to scream in pain. Suddenly I could hear a whacking sound and when I could sit up I couldn’t believe what I saw! Ousephachayan was cowering on the ground. And our sweet, gentle, timid aunt was giving her bully of a husband the thrashing of his life – with a hockey stick!
And the neighbours who had been rushing to see what the commotion was all about were now watching silently through the bars of the open gate, unwilling to enter the compound or intervene. Piggy rushed to Lillymama and put his arms around her waist. She threw the hockey stick on the ground and pulled us into the house.
“Show me where it hurts, children?” Lillymama said gently.
We showed her our wounds and scratches, all the while fearful that Ousephachayan would return. We held on to her tightly when he did walk in, but he slumped into his teakwood armchair and stayed silent, looking at his wife from the corner of his eyes. He was muddy and dirty... and bleeding.
“Come on, children, I’ll take you home,” Lillymama said.
We followed Lillymama out of the gate, but I felt someone grab me and shake me hard, with much anger. She pulled me out of my brother’s angry grip and he let go and backed away. Appa fell in step behind us and Amma, waiting at the door of our house, silently stepped aside to let me in. It seemed like all the villagers were awake and none had a voice. We watched Lillymama go home.
“Amma, Ousephachayan was hitting Lillymama. Don’t let her go back!” I couldn’t hold back my fear.
“Shh. I think all will be fine now.”
“How can you say? Piggy told me it’s happened before!”
“Shhh! Go to bed. It’s been a rough night. Say your prayers before you sleep.”
The next morning, Sunday, Piggy and I were ready and out of our homes early. We waited before the entrance of the lane leading to Ousephachayan’s house. At a few minutes before seven, Lillymama emerged. She was dressed in a starched white kasavu sari with a green border and green blouse and walked behind her husband to church. She gestured to us to walk beside her and opened a small steel tiffin. There were four urunuvadas.
I felt uncomfortable walking to church. We walked to the three-way junction and went left. People looked at us and looked away quickly, but Lillymama walked calmly to church, holding our hands. At church, some of the ladies who had never talked to Lillymama or looked at her before, stared. The church filled to bursting point and people jostled us silently for space. All through the service, people turned, stared at us and whispered. I felt embarrassed. My mother came by about half an hour later, and stood near Lillymama, smiling at her. Today she was not standing with her best friend Elsyamma. 'Why?' I wanted to ask Piggy, but held my tongue. The Qurbana service had started, and Amma would get angry if I asked questions not related to the service.
Strangely our friends were quiet too. They avoided looking or talking to us. Mathew Joseph, who was in fourth standard in my school, looked behind and stared. His mother turned him around roughly to face the front of the church. I felt feelings of shame and aloneness creep up. I moved closer to Piggy and he held my hand. When we went forward for the blessing, the Achen (priest) hesitated when he saw Piggy and me. What if he refused to bless us? But he nodded for us to come ahead and tapped the cross on our heads. I couldn’t understand any of it.
After church, we didn’t linger like we often did. Piggy and I walked back home with Lillymama. Ousephachayan had not given us a single glance the entire time. And as the day passed, we lost our fear of him. I had not slept the whole night, thinking he would beat us on our way to church.
That night Piggy tapped lightly at my bedroom window. My sister was sleeping and Piggy slipped me a note. I read it by torchlight. We agreed to meet at the kitchen door after 10pm, when it was certain my father would nod off in front of the TV and my brother would be playing games on his phone or watching a movie on his laptop with his door locked.
We got out the same way we had the previous night and walked slowly to the Kuriakose home. We stood staring at the house. My heart beat fast and I felt frightened thinking of last night. We had been given a restrained scolding by our fathers and told to avoid the Kuriakoses for a few days, but we had caught up with Lillymama in the morning and stuck close to her until our parents ordered us home after noon.
We climbed the bricks stacked against the boundary wall. No one seemed to have noticed the missing bricks or the makeshift staircase against the wall. We eventually moved all the bricks to a point that looked directly into the sitting room, which is where Lillymama sat in a corner, not directly in Ousephachayan’s view.
We saw Ousephachayan start at slight noises, looking hard at the darkness outside his sitting room windows. He couldn’t have seen anything because the lone lightbulb over the front door threw only enough light to make the windows and doors and some part of the courtyard visible. Ousephachayan stayed silent. He watched TV and every now and then threw a glance at his wife. She was watching TV too.
We stayed for a long time, watching, and listening. And unwilling to climb into the courtyard like we did yesterday. The old landline phone rang, the shrill noise in the silence stabbing us with fear. Ousephachayan let it ring several times, then lifted the phone and spoke. He immediately waved the receiver at Lillymama and she got up and took it from him.
Lillymama spoke and her head immediately shot up, trying to peer through the dark outside the window. Ousephachayan’s body was stiff but he refused to look out of the windows, his head rigidly facing the TV. Lillymama spoke to Ousephachayan and he shook his head sharply and shrugged. She set the phone down and came to the window. She peered out and we lowered our heads.
“Children, I can see you. Your parents want you home.”
We lowered ourselves below the wall and stayed still, panicking. The front door opened and we heard the gate’s loud squeal. The footsteps and the torchlight came closer, relief hitting us when we realised the light footsteps were Lillymama’s. She shone the light on us and we looked down in embarrassment. She knelt in front of us, took our hands and kissed them, tears falling but her face looking happy. In a while we were in a tight embrace, her wet kisses on our faces.
She handed Piggy the torch, got up and took our hands. She walked us to our houses slowly and told us that we needn’t come out at night anymore. That it worried our parents. Her smile was different. Different from before yesterday. I was bursting to ask questions about Ousephachayan, but couldn’t voice them. Amma said I asked a lot of inappropriate questions, and I thought this was going to be inappropriate too. I felt afraid when we saw our homes. There were lights on and people milling around in front. Both of us slowed, moving behind Lillymama.
“Nothing will happen, children. Don’t be afraid. I spoke to your parents.”
I wasn’t convinced. But there was no choice but to face my family head on. Maybe a beating. Or a shouting. No visits to the weekly market maybe. I glanced at Piggy. He looked tense. At my door, Lillymama insisted I go to bed.
My sister took my hand and led me to the bedroom. “You have the nerve to run away again. Appa and Amma are in a state!”
I stayed silent, ready to burst with guilt and uncertainty and the awful fear that I was going to be thrashed. I heard footsteps and saw my mother at the bedroom door. She called my sister out and they had a short conversation. My sister came back in, insisted I wash my feet, arms and face, dried them for me and then put me to bed.
I was touched by her sudden tenderness, which dulled somewhat the disquiet in me. The last thing I remember was her asking me if I wanted her to read me a story. But my eyes closed, only with thoughts of Piggy and Lillymama.
Anna Peter lives in Mumbai and is a financial editor and a former journalist. Her articles have been published in the Hindu Business Line. She writes a fictional series on her blog called Fishy Chronicles that explores love, loss and other adventures with an unruly menagerie. She also writes romances. She enjoys travelling and good food in the company of good friends. She has been catching up on reading during the current lockdown, and is pleasantly surprised to discover that she can stray away from crime fiction.
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