Smudges of spirit stain the cotton swabs littering the white-tiled floor. Dried saliva and smears of desiccated phlegm on gloomy walls highlight the hospital administration’s callousness.
Wrinkles crease his nose as Sunil smells the scent of suffering that fills the humid air in the ward. He curses his brain for endowing him with the faculty of senses, making him alive to the realities of life; a part of him that enables him to know what pain feels like.
Invisible, the fumes traverse into his lungs and choke him. He looks at his wife, wonders whether she senses the smell as much as he does; recognizes its staleness. Does she suffocate as it pervades; a malignancy that corrupts the purity of the air she breathes?
Maybe, the malignancy in her brain will have caused cognitive dysfunction, rendering her less sensitive to its pungency. Maybe, the seizures make her oblivious to her surroundings; to the taste of food she eats, the humidity in the ward. But, no matter what damage the malignancy does to her cognition, the warmth of her smile and the radiance on her face, when she speaks to him, never die.
In a bed, away from hers, underneath soiled linen, a patient grunts in pain. Someone, may be, who cannot serve anyone’s purpose anymore. Otherwise, someone will have been there, by the bedside; in rapt attention, taking care of her needs and wants. In the three days that they have been there, he has seen no one attend to her, except the healthcare workers.
Sunil’s gaze returns to his wife. Her face appears serene, as if a cool breeze sweeps along amidst the sultriness in the ward. Her eyes roll beneath her dusky eyelids, calm and rhythmic movements, as if she’s adrift in the wings of a sweet dream; traversing the universe, wondering at the enigma, mysteries unfolding before her eyes.
What may be happening in the insides of her head? Will the seeds of the tumor be notching at her brain, like squirrels gnawing at the nuts in their hands? A play thing that they can twist and turn; to bite through the most vulnerable part, to savor the delicacy…
Chaotic clamors draw his attention. A gurney carries, wheels rolling in frantic rotation, a girl struggling, convulsions rocking her body. She twists and turns, fighting for breath, clutching the metallic bars as if to suppress her pain. An orderly shifts her to the nearby bed. Two men, accompanying her, place themselves on its sides. They hold her limbs down, in their effort to restrain her, but her body convulses in spasms as she utters a shrill cry.
“Shit,” the young man on Sunil’s side of the bed curses.
The other guy looks towards Sunil, notices him watching. He throws a glance at his companion, as if to warn him.
The man who cursed pats the girl’s cheek, an obvious gesture of pretence. “Easy baby, everything will be alright.”
Sunil yearns for a cigarette and takes a look at his wife, sees the clamor doesn’t wake her up. Is the malignancy clouding her acoustic sense also? The slight trace of a smile brightens her face even in slumber. It’s amazing, he thinks, how she sustains her smile in difficult times.
Last year, the doctors’ verdict has been ‘hardly twelve months’ but she’s coursed through fifteen almost. Now, how long will she be able to fight the menace that eats through her brain, the evil that feeds on its cells?
A few moments, Sunil thinks, a coward’s route to damnation; a momentary escape from realities… He gets up, walks out of the ward, and moves towards the veranda’s exit that leads to a garden.
“I can’t go near her, it brings her tantrums.”
Sunil hears a man in white dhoti and slacks, speak to a security guard, pulling out a five-hundred rupee note from his wallet. He watches; a means of escape.
“Two of my boys are there,” the man says, handing over the money to the guard. “They can handle the situation. But make sure, the girl doesn’t have any problems and my men should have access to her, around the clock. She must get what she needs, when she wants it.” He mops his face with a handkerchief.
It’s as if he doesn’t give a damn to the world around him, like he can do whatever he wants to do, no matter who watches or listens.
“Sure, sir…” The guard salutes the man.
Enough is enough. “Excuse me,” Sunil says.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the man in dhoti says, abruptly moving to a side. “In my tension, I didn’t realize I was blocking your way.”
Sunil nods at him, recognizes how the bleakness in his eyes betrays the hollowness of his words; a man adept in uttering apologies that he doesn’t mean… maybe, a politician who doesn’t stand up to his call.
Sunil crosses the small garden, goes onto the parking lot. He looks around for a security camera, finds none, and lights a cigarette. Even the first drag sends the coarseness of the tobacco against his palate, closes all routes to escape. The humid air, pungent with the scents of spirit and lotions, suffocates him. He stubs out the cigarette.
While returning to the ward, he notices an open jeep speed by. A man, with the barrel of a shot gun resting inside the crook of his arm, sits in the front with the driver. The man in white relaxes in the back seat, propped against the leather upholstery, smoking a pipe.
A man who trusts the money he leaves behind, to take care of a patient’s problems, Sunil thinks. A man who doesn’t feel the need to console the suffering person; maybe, a loved one…
The girl lets out a sharp cry, as if awoken by a nightmare, as Sunil enters the ward. His wife has woken up.
He sits by her side. “How do you feel now, Latha?”
“Better,” she winces as she speaks. “The giddiness has subsided. I’m having a headache.”
“Where are those thugs?” Sunil gestures toward the girl. A young doctor is giving her an injection.
“The doctor asked them to leave, and they made a big fuss about it.”
“There’s something fishy about the whole thing.”
“I thought so too,” Latha says. “They wouldn’t even allow the doctor to talk to the girl. Whenever she tried to say something, they stopped her and spoke on her behalf. Finally, he sent them away.”
“What’s it with the girl?”
“Should be a serious psychiatric problem; I think, PTSD. The poor girl is hardly fifteen.” Latha takes in a deep breath. “They’ve done something horribly wrong to her.”
“It is okay, Latha, she’ll be fine.” Why are you so unique? Sunil thinks, I try to hide behind the shroud of a cigarette’s smoke, and you’re so awaken to the reality.
“You know, Sunil, my only regret is that I can’t do anything for her at this stage. But then, aren’t we sometimes destined to carry the burden of guilt into our graves?”
“Latha, don’t stretch things too far.” Sunil hopes she believes what he says. “It may be some minor problem.”
“I know, Sunil. You’re one who goes by the books. You’ll never want to create a scene in a hospital, doing something about it, especially when I’m a patient there.”
After the doctor leaves, the girl relaxes. Her chest rises and falls as she breathes.
“Did the doctor say anything about your discharge?” Sunil asks.
“A couple of days, maybe; he doesn’t specify. The consultant will come for the evening rounds at four. He’ll see me. They don’t expect any problems; just want him to review my case.”
Taints of lie, Sunil knows, just like the one he told her, layer her words. But, he’ll pretend he believes her. “Well, that leaves us enough time to see how the girl fares. I know you care.”
“Yes, you’re right.” Latha closes her eyes. “I feel tired.”
Sunil runs his fingers through her hair. Luster gone, her curly locks feel coarse against his hand. Her lack of attention in recent days reflects on her pale skin too, now rid of its usual glaze, except when she smiles. Weariness makes his eyelids droop.
Latha isn’t worried about the malignancy of the evil that eats up her brains, or at least she doesn’t want to appear so. It bothers Sunil that he’s had to place her in discomfort, because the hospital’s pay wards are under renovation. They’ve had to make do with the lack of amenities of the general ward. She’s had constant seizures in recent days and she loathes the idea of others observing her suffering in the ward, where there’s no privacy.
Her desire to attend her father’s death anniversary, a wish he cannot deny her, brings them to this town of hers. She has told him, here the kings still rule in the guise of white-clad politicians, and basic facilities like good hospitals are absent while bars thrive in plenty.
Sounds of a groan wake him up as he begins to fall asleep. He looks at his wife and finds her still in slumber, the trace of a smile vibrant on her face.
Again, the girl groans and grits her teeth as she rolls, one leg thrown over the bed’s edge. Another move may risk a fall.
Sunil approaches her bed and straightens her leg. She doesn’t resist. He shifts her to the middle. Suddenly she flays her arms, and her body rocks in convulsions.
“It’s okay, just relax.” Sunil pats her arm. What Latha can’t do now, he wants to.
She opens her eyes and Sunil notices the fear flashing through the slight wetness in their depths. Then, as she regains orientation, she becomes relaxed. “They…”
“Don’t worry. You’ll be all right. It’s my wife on the other bed. She’s also a doctor. If you have any problems, you can tell her.”
As Sunil withdraws his hand, she holds onto it. “Your wife told me you’re a good man; a very, very good man.” The emotion she’s held back now begins to flow. Tears rolling down her eyes shine even in the ward’s dim light. “Your hand is so warm, doesn’t have that chillness.”
Perplexed, Sunil discerns a raw feeling of dread generating from the pit of his stomach, the primordial fear for the unexplained.
“What’s your name?” he asks, unable to think of a better way to respond. “And, do you need anything?”
She shakes her head. “Amy…” Her grip around his wrist tightens, and her hand grows warmer as if she has fever.
“Should I call the doctor, Amy?”
“No, are…” She gasps. “Are they gone?”
For a moment Sunil doesn’t understand what she means. Then it dawns on him. “Yes, the doctor chased them away.”
“Your wife…” Amy says. “She’s good too; very, very good… she told the doctor to send them away.”
“Well, yes, she is.” Sunil says. “You can ask us anything you want.” He starts to go back to his wife’s bed.
“I wish you were my parents… and I know you don’t have children. I’ve seen it in her eyes; yours too…”
Amy won’t leave his hand. Sunil again feels the raw chill of dread in his guts, that primal fear, which momentarily paralyzes his brain; then, it sends a rush of blood through his veins, a shiver along his spine.
“You know, I’ve magic in me,” Amy says, holding onto Sunil’s hand. “I think your wife has some of it too. She’d just lain there, looking at me, I staring back. And she knew, all I wanted to tell her.”
Yeah, magic in her brain, Sunil thinks, the malignancy that desensitizes her to the pain she suffers. “I know, women are like that… It’s a gift, perhaps. You understand one another, without having to use words carrying lesser meanings.”
“Yes, we understand the hand, the torment…” Amy looks at the ceiling. “Do you see it crawl…?” She gasps, taking in breaths of air through her mouth, her budding breasts rising and falling in rapid heaves. Pausing, she resumes, “The spider; the hand resembles it, feels like it’s crawling along my flesh.”
“What hands? There’s nobody here, other than you and me,” Sunil says.
“I’ve felt it, since mother left me a year ago…” Amy pants. “Left me alone, went to dwell among the stars… maybe, home wasn’t any good to her just like it isn’t to me.
“There aren’t any hands here, Amy, except yours and mine.”
“You can’t see it. Even I can’t… but, in the darkness I feel its chill…” Her grip on his wrist tightens. “The hands waken me up… tear apart the sleep in my eyes; with fingers thick like a tarantula’s legs, black like a widow’s taint.”
Amy carries on with her monologue, as if Sunil doesn’t exist anymore. “My father wears veils; white khadi clothes to mask the darkness of his heart, a painted smile to hide the evil…”
“The man in white…”
For Amy, Sunil still doesn’t exist.
“You know, I’ve felt the slugs creep on my skin after the spiders are done,” Amy says. “For a moment, I’ll think their bellies are warm. But when the filth trickles down my inner thighs or buttocks, I feel the chillness, drops of the cold and sticky substance trailing down…”
Sunil puts a hand to her cheek, pats her, hoping his palm’s warmth will soothe her. The sound of her mumblings slowly drops to the hum of a lullaby.
Sunil watches in terror, as Latha’s hair lashes along the white bedspread, like waves of a turbulent ocean. Then he observes those spiders, an array of species, tarantulas, black widows; camel, tiger, scorpion, crab, and huntsman spiders… creating the chaos among the strands of her hair, now in full luster.
The creepers suddenly leave, each filing into a group comprising their own species, and scrambles down the bed, as his stare sends waves of heat through her curly locks.
Latha’s lustrous hair melts, flows onto the pillow, in a black smelly mass of lava. Then, as he watches, it becomes a golden halo around her head.
Sunil then notices a school of slugs crawling along her exposed skull. The mollusks sneak into the pores in her head; maybe, forged by the malignant evil inside.
He sits transfixed. His craft only allows him to work on dots; draw lines, and to calculate angles, then to construct, not to toil with an existing creation. He sweats.
She’s always been the better one, Sunil thinks, she pierces the creations, can operate from the outside, rather than working from dots and lines, the insides.
She keeps a smile on, no matter what evil forages the insides of her skull. The vibrancy of her spirit never lost, it doesn’t matter how dull her hair looks.
“I won’t allow you, Latha…” Sunil murmurs, “I won’t allow you to go to your grave with the burden of guilt.”
Sunil feels the warmth of a drop of Amy’s tears on the skin of his palm. As it trails down, it turns cold. He recognizes its chillness on his flesh.
Amy’s fingers around his wrist still remain warm.
“Won’t you ever, Sunil, cast away your reservations,” Amy asks, “and start working from the outside?”
She sounds like Latha. Sunil knows that he has nothing left to live for, once his wife is gone. “Yes, it will keep the smile on her face, no matter what evil notches her insides; something I do for you will rid her of her feeling of guilt.”
“Will you, then, come with me?”
“Where…” As soon as Sunil asks the question, he receives the answer, without Amy having to speak a word.
“I knew you’d understand.”
“Will you lead the way, Amy?”
“I’ll,” she says. “They scraped something out of my belly; maybe, a seed my father had sown, a slug to him. But, to me it was a precious gem.”
“You have to overcome the nightmares, Amy.”
“I know, but since then, I’ve had these convulsions, maybe, my delusions.” Amy gets up, and prepares to climb down the bed.
I look at Latha. The smile, even in the dim-lit ward, remains vibrant. I hear her whisper; maybe, thanking me for lessening her burden.
“Amy, do you have something I can use… something quick and easy?”
“Of course, Sunil…” Amy stands straight. “You know, fear is something that my father respects most. He used to tell me, it’s the basic instinct of humans.” She takes a deep breath. “He values that primary emotion, which helps us survive. So, he keeps many weapons at home, and I know where he hides each.”
“Good.” Sunil holds Amy’s hand.
Latha’s face continues to carry the glint of her smile.
The story has already appeared in Vol.12 Issue 1 [Spring 2020] of the Pennsylvania Literary Journal.
Hareendran Kallinkeel writes from Kerala, India, after a stint of 15 years in a police organization and five years in the Special Forces. His fiction usually tends to be dark and fantastical with some magic realism elements. His recent publications include Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Bryant Literary Review of Bryant University, and El Portal of Eastern New Mexico University, among others. His fiction is forthcoming in the Fall 2022 Issue of Cardinal Sins Journal of Saginaw Valley State University, and 34 Orchard Journal. He has been nominated for Pushcart Prize and he is also a finalist of the Best of the Net-2020.