(An excerpt from debut author S.V. Sujatha’s new supernatural thriller published by Aleph Book Company)
Kunjukuttan could feel something watching him. All at once, he felt very afraid. His fingers went to the iron dagger strapped to his loincloth. ‘Who is there?’ he shouted into the darkness, his fingers on the hilt of the weapon. He raised the wooden torch he carried as high as he could, trying to look beyond the shadows of the lonely forest path he was walking on. The flickering flames were not much use on this moonless night; they only served to somehow make the darkness deeper, more ominous. Every creeper suddenly seemed to be the long hair of a demon hanging off a tree, and every firefly the rabid yellow eyes of a hyena.
It came at him suddenly from behind, screeching and flapping. As he staggered back in fright, the basket of fish on his head spilled to the ground. He whirled around, trying to identify the threat; the flickering light of torch picked out a black object perched on a tree behind him. A jungle crow. Its eyes glittered in the light. It screeched again.
‘So you are the monster watching me?’ Kunjukuttan said with a nervous laugh. ‘You gave me a scare, black one. Go away now!’ He waved the torch at the bird, trying to scare it away. ‘All your friends are in their nests for the night. Why are you still flying about, scaring simple old men like me?’ He thought he saw it smile at him, a faint mocking smile, but then he blinked, and it was gone. The toddy, you old fool, all the toddy you drank this evening has got you seeing things, feeling things, he murmured to himself as he bent down to pick up the fish, dust them off and throw them back into the basket.
He headed down the mud road again. He still felt he was being watched, but he was not concerned now that he knew the watcher was merely the crow. He could hear it flapping from tree to tree. Perhaps it was after the fish.
‘You are not getting any of it, black one. This is the finest haul of aiykoora and karimeen and kadalkuthira I have caught. It will be worth all my trouble in the market,’ he said, chuckling. He had spent the whole afternoon by the river, catching fish and cleaning them, polishing their scales until they shone. At sunset he had set off on the walk to the village of Ramamangalam. He wanted to get there by sunrise and set up shop when the market opened for the day so he could sell the fish while they were still fresh.
Leaving the jungle behind, he plodded on past fields of rice, barley and wheat, the harvest swaying in the breeze, the river gurgling slow through the trenches dug into the land. As Kunjukuttan came to a grove of pala trees, he exclaimed in surprise, ‘What is this?’ Was the toddy playing tricks on his mind again? He blinked, trying to clear his vision, but nothing about the scene in front of him changed. All the pala trees, rows and rows of them, were covered in fragrant white flowers, their crowns shining white against the clear black sky. And the smell! Oh, the smell of the blooms! Kunjukuttan imagined that this is what Indra’s heavens smelled like, of honey and incense, of the holy nectar churned out of the sea.
But even as he thought this, he realized there was something odd about the blooming pala grove. The trees should not be in flower for at least another six months. Yet, here they were, their branches wreathed in white. Was this a bad omen, he wondered. But even as the unease grew within him, he was strangely reluctant to turn around and head back home as one part of his mind was urging him to do. He had never seen anything quite so beautiful. The fragrance, warm and heady, flooded his senses. Despite his misgivings, which were growing ever fainter now, he walked into the grove. When he was a little way into it, he heard a rustling in the trees. Then a soft tinkling. Kunjukuttan reached for his dagger instinctively. In case it was a demon after his blood, the iron would repel it, give him enough time to run back to the village if he was fortunate and quick enough. He raised his torch high in the air, blowing at the flames so they burned bright.
In the flickering light he saw a beautiful woman approaching him. ‘Will you help me, O bhadra?’ she asked softly.
His hand dropped away from the dagger. Kunjukuttan brought the torch closer to her. She was even more beautiful in the clarity of the light. Her voluptuous body was draped in shimmering white silk, the clinging bodice rising and falling with every breath she took. Her hair was dark like smoke. Her face shone as if sculpted of polished metal.
‘I am afraid to travel alone, O bhadra,’ she said. Her luscious, red lips parted in a smile.. ‘Will you allow me to walk with you? Your company will comfort me greatly.’
‘Indeed,’ Kunjukuttan said, smiling. ‘The forest can be frightening to a delicate maiden like you. But don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.’
The woman smiled back at him. She seemed to be impressed by his show of chivalry. She came closer. Kunjukuttan couldn’t help but notice her tiny waist, the flare of her hips, her generous breasts barely constrained by the silk bodice. What pleasures did the night hold in store for him, he wondered with mounting excitement. And then the niggling worry at the back of his mind surfaced again.
‘Don’t you have any belongings?’ he asked.
The woman shook her head. ‘I have nothing,’ she said simply.
Kunjukuttan shrugged and they began to walk deeper into the pala grove. The perfume from the flowers wrapped itself around them. Kunjukuttan was growing more and more excited as the woman’s body brushed against him. His head was feeling weightless, as if it were floating free.