TRANSLATED FROM THE MALAYALAM BY K. M. AJIR KUTTY
A canoe is swaying over the ripples of the river sparkling with moonlight. Alfred said that the scene was a romantic one. One could come across such words redolent of pulp literature in certain weekly periodicals; particularly in periodicals meant for women reading something slipshod prior to slipping into a nap.
Esther Hans asked whether the canoe too was not romantic. She went on saying that life itself was a journey. A small canoe on a vast river flowing between two banks is life itself, for sure; the life which is rowing freely all alone after letting the mind out of its cage for pursuing its solitary thoughts.
At night, mists had begun to fall. The glass doors of the bungalow were saturated with moisture. The moon was now spreading light beyond the semi-transparent mists.
‘Journeys have a great role to play in life.’
Esther closed the book on which she was writing. She aimlessly scribbled on a white sheet of paper with the nib of the pen. The paper on which black ink spread now looked like a drawing done by a modern artist.
“You always plan a journey during autumn, don’t you…?” Pulling up one more pillow on the cot Alfred reclined on them. The CD player was playing Ustad Bismillah Khan ’s shehnai . During night, this music reminds one of the strains of a house where somebody has died.
“It is as though you are mourning the deaths of some great men. Stop it, will you?”
Esther rose from her seat.
“Why should you be afraid of death? As we are unable to arrive at a definite decision about matters that surround us, death too has no surety on offer. Why do you write the story of others, you who have no idea about how your next moment in life will be?”
Alfred lighted a cigarette. The smoke went out through the gaps of glass windows seeking cold outside. It then melted in the mists drenched in moonlight.
Esther turned the CD player off, bringing an end to the shehnai.
Alfred enjoyed smoking the cigarette. Each puff was drawn in, before letting it out from the chest through the nostrils and sometimes as if whistling through the pursed lips.
Standing by the glass door, Esther saw the scenes outside. The valley was covered in mists. Even the trees standing close by became invisible having been smothered deep in darkness. The darkness looked like a netherworld cave.
“This bungalow now looks like a house in mourning. Silence is a chum of death, too.”
Alfred stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray, while he was still lying on the bed. A bit of ash fell on the bed from the ashtray.
“You shouldn’t burn the bed. You will have to account for it while checking out…”
Esther warned him.
“You didn’t say anything…? Isn’t silence equal to death, too?”
Alfred kept looking at Esther.
Esther drew close to Alfred. She sat with him on the cot. The she looked in his eyes. She found that his eyelashes were not moving at all. So were hers. On a moment’s spur Alfred forcefully blew into her eyes. At the touch of that wind, she closed her eyes.
“Why are you acting like little children…?”
That night beneath a blanket they tried to know each other.
At that moment Ernest was walking through the darkness outside the bungalow. Sitting in the outhouse next to the bungalow he was thinking about a movie. He was trying to arrange meaningfully the screen play sequences of an ad film maker arriving at the foot of a hill to visit a desolate mansion eerily lit and haunted by evil spirits at night. After a gap of three years, Ernest was trying to make a comeback with this story made into a film. Three years went down under the drain writing a lot and thinking differently without being able to decide upon what kind of a cinema should be made to cater to the interests of the movie goers. And Ernest genuinely felt that the medium of cinema itself had moved far away from the minds of the people during that time. At long last, it was after he had made a round trip to America that he felt that if a horror subject was made into a movie with all its visual impacts, it could perhaps make at least a ripple in the visual medium of cinema. The moment it occurred to him that in case a new character too was inserted into the stream of narration, it would augment the natural progress of the plot, Ernest went inside and took hold of the script he had finished writing. Ernest was now sure that if the ad film maker protagonist’s friend in Vietnam was also presented at this juncture, some episodes connected with black magic could also be included. Thinking that it would work for him, he started to reread the screen play with the intention of changing the end of the 35th scene, aiming to amplify the sequences immediately following it.
Bank of the river inside the forest.
Louis is sitting tired, propped against a tree on the riverbank.
Cries and roars of some wild animals are heard at a distance.
He pressed softly on the revolver kept in the pocket of his pants.
He looks as if he is relieved.
A lightning struck in the sky. A cold wind heralding rain blew.
He zipped up his pull over.
The river in the middle of the forest is seen in the lightning.
Louis is sitting as though he is expecting somebody.
The restlessness resulting from the non-arrival of the expected person is obvious in him.
The radium studded dial of his wrist watch, which shone even in darkness, showed time as 12:10.
Suddenly a blue light shone in the darkness at a distance. Louis looked at it just for a moment.
The light shone again. Then it went out.
He saw just then that it was from the river itself. Rising from the foot of the tree, he walked towards the river.
Right at that moment a sound was heard. Just like somebody making a move. He turned back with a start. Behind him it was just darkness. He heard the hoot of an owl and the sound of a nocturnal bird flying away flapping its wings. He looked around. Darkness hung around slightly heightening its menacing presence as it were. The blue light on the river was slowly drawing closer. It kept on shining and dimming out. Suddenly a voice calling ‘Louis’ rang out from somewhere. Louis was shell-shocked. The moment he turned back he saw a sombre figure right behind the tree in front of which he was standing. The figure stood still now. For a moment, fear filled in Louis’ eyes. He slowly walked back. The river water wet his feet. The tempestuous flow of the river. Louis saw now the black figure moving up. His tongue went dry. His hand went slowly into the pocket of his pants.
Right at that moment, the cry of a woman was heard loud. Ernest heard that. He was startled. The paper he was reading fell from his hands. The opened doors shook and rattled in the wind. Ernest rushed out of the bungalow. He saw neither any light nor heard any sound in the bungalow and the neighbouring cottages which lay smothered under the mists.
Ernest got down to the courtyard. Two outhouses outside the bungalow are occupied. It is an Italian called Derik who has come to watch and study about birds who is staying in one of the outhouses. And in the bungalow, it is Alfred and Esther. Esther Hans is a well-known writer in Malayalam. Ernest remembered Esther telling him, when he made an acquaintance with her, that several of her novels have been translated into foreign languages. While meeting in the restaurant at the bungalow, Ernest had told her that he would like to have a detailed discussion with her about the screen play he was writing. Alfred is a maker of ad films. It was while hunting for suitable locations for his new ad film that he came to know of this place. Ernest had heard in advance about Alfred who had won many awards. While having breakfast, when Alfred said that movie frames nowadays have acquired the import and tempo of ad films, Ernest could not but agree to it.
For a moment, Ernest stood watching the moonlight spreading all around through the mists. The atmosphere was still and without any sound, not even that of a locust, and it looked like a frozen shot. The next moment itself Ernest did away with his desire to look for the source of the loud cry. Ernest tried to comfort himself saying that it must have occurred to him that some loud noise was heard at certain stage when words were moving as scenes through his mind. He took out a cigarette from his pocket and lighted it. The smoke rising from the sodden cigarette spread all around him.
Suddenly one of the rooms of the bungalow was lit up with light. The light fell onto the veranda beyond the glass windows lined with curtains. The remaining area was a thick canvas of darkness. Each scene appeared to be a slice of memory. Ernest walked towards the bungalow as though he was re-enacting an experience he had previously. At that time he felt like being led by somebody else. Nothing stirred in the room. Through the straight line of light falling across the veranda, a rat crawled up. Ernest saw it clearly. Just then he remembered the fact that even when all living organisms of the world have died and turned to dust, rats and cockroaches alone would still exist as the last signs of the throbbing life.
Moving away from the shred of light, Ernest stood cowering like a thief by the window doors. A sinister thought of getting to know what would be going on inside the room gripped him. Two young love pairs (the term was first heard being uttered by an astrologer) in this dale, in this cold, in this night and if in such a situation if they have had two shots of a heady brew, whatever could not have happened…?! Ernest tiptoed and crossed the straight line of light on cats’ paws and drew closer to the next window. Why are all the doors closed?
Ernest remembered that he had on many occasion filmed squares of window curtains draped with light and shadow as frames of still lives in his films. And on many occasion many viewers of his movies too have told him that the presence of a cinematographer who knows his mind is conspicuous in his films. Ernest did say in his mind that he would film the light and darkness in this veranda as potential scenes for his new movie. And he thanked the producer in his mind for selecting the location for him to write the story for the movie. Suddenly he heard the voice of Alfred from inside the room. He is saying something. His slow voice slowly reaches a crescendo. It does have rhythm.
Anna, can you hear what I am saying…? You come out from the cover of darkness into the light. The sun has risen in the eastern horizon. Clouds are flitting across the sky. The soul of man who has lost his wings is flying toward the rainbow. We can see a beautiful world of minds brimming with expectations. Anna, raise your head and look…how beautiful is this earth!
Alfred’s voice ended. Now, nothing is heard. Just the howling of the wind. It occurred to Ernest that he had heard somewhere on certain occasion the lines of the monologue he has just heard. Ernest thought that he would seek the permission of Alfred to add those fascinating lines to his screen play. Suddenly he heard something falling and breaking on the floor inside the bungalow. And the light too went out suddenly. In the darkness somebody opened the door. Ernest stood awfully close to the wall with bated breath. Drawing aside the door curtain, someone stepped onto the flight of steps wet with dew. Ernest stood watching, without winking even once, that figure descending into the chill of the darkness. Ernest saw that the human figure was made with the haze in the light emanating from a slice of the moon when it fell down. Getting into his big toe a numbing coldness spread through his body. Even as he was watching, the bungalow and its immediate surroundings stood all bathed in moonlight. Just then Ernest knew that that figure all covered up in black cloth walked on until it disappeared as a shadow amidst the cluster of trees. Right at that moment Ernest felt that the sharp silver light from the projector room was freezing his sight.