This was a chapter that was written to be included in the Part 1 of Maya’s New Husband. It did not make it past the editing stage, as it was thought to be too spoilery. If you have already read the book, you may enjoy this chapter. And if you haven’t read it yet, well… why haven’t you?
The night was darker than the inside of a beating heart, but the rag-picker knew exactly where to look. This street had been his domain since the last several years of his young life, and he had no qualms stepping even into regions that other mortals feared to venture into. His survival hinged on finding the best spoils anyway, and he could not leave before he had thoroughly scoured the area for all that it had to offer.
As he placed his unshod feet on the slippery grass, he suddenly winced and pulled back. It was the scream that came out of his lips first, and then the impulse to hold the brutalized foot with his free hand. In the ambient light, he saw the broken half of a bottle rolling away obscenely from the spot where he had just stepped on. It left a trail of blood behind for sure, but the darkness prevented him from seeing that.
He kept his bag down and hobbled along on one foot to a puddle, with the intention of plunging the burning foot into the cold water. Trivial matters like the possibility of the foot getting infected did not matter to him much. He had spent more than twenty years of his life in this filth; he was sure he could bear whatever filth nature and civilization gave him.
And so he came up to the puddle, whose darkened water shimmered in the wan moonlight, and dipped his foot in it. The wound didn’t seem to be quite deep now, and he knew he would survive it. He had survived worse things anyway.
Then he noticed that he was not alone. There was another man sitting by the puddle, probably washing his hands in it. Even though he was on his haunches, there was no doubt that this stranger was quite tall.
Who was this? Like a dog that feels threatened when another of its ilk steps into its domain, he felt threatened. He almost bared his fangs and was just about snarl something in anger, when the other man spoke.
“Are you hurt, brother?” he asked.
The sudden gesture of compassion threw him off-balance. “Who be you?” he asked.
“I am no one,” the taller man said. “Let me see the wound.”
“No, but I can help.”
The rag-picker thought about it, his slow mind trying to weigh the pros and cons of the situation. Then he seemed to have arrived at a decision and sat down on a rock next to the puddle. He raised his foot and pointed it at the man. “Look.”
The taller man, still on the ground, turned and took the foot in his hand. Ignoring the audible wince that the rag-picker made, he examined the wound, his head very close to it almost as though he meant to heal it with a kiss. But he only came as close to the wound as he possibly could, perhaps so close that he could smell the blood, and then stopped. The rag-picker looked at the scene with an amused interest at first, but when the man’s head began to twitch, he lost his grin.
“I have the medicine for this,” the man said. “It’s a mix of herbs. If you do not mind, I can apply that on this wound and it will be gone forever.”
The rag-picker shook his head. “No, no, what’s the need? This be a small wound. Clean gone by tomorrow, I know.”
“No.” The tall man shook his head in the way a doctor does when a patient refuses good medicine. “Believe me, I have seen a lot many more wounds than you have. This one looks small but it can get septic. Do you want to lose your foot?”
The rag-picker shuddered. “Can that happen?”
“Yes, if you are careless. Trust me.”
And then a smile arose on the other man’s face, and despite the poor light, the rag-picker could see that the man’s kind words were a sharp contrast to his face. The marks on his face reminded him of the creases on a molted snake skin he had seen years ago.
“My house is right here,” said the man. “Come in. I will take care of you.”
The rag-picker hesitated. He had been to houses of strange people and done strange things with them, special favors for gifts as they called it, but he did not know what to think about this man. Was he a kindred soul who just wanted to help him? Or was there something poisonous laced in his honey-dipped words? He could never tell. But what did he have to lose either way?
“Where be your house?” he asked.
“There,” the man pointed vaguely. “Walk with me. Can you walk?”
“Very much,” he said and began limping behind his inviter.
It was not until a few minutes later, when they were actually standing near the place, that the rag-picker realized where they were headed.
“This… but this place be always locked.”
The other man nodded. “I like it that way,” he said.
“That means… you own this place?”
There was another nod but no words.
“How?” the rag-picker went on. “This be not a house. It be a garage. All these broken cars.”
“You ask too many questions,” said the man, and there was a tone of finality in his voice. “I am only trying to help.”
The younger man balked at that tone. His body shivered for a moment, but then he stilled. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s go in.”
At that, the other man smiled and ruffled the rag-picker’s hair. “Now that’s good, young man. Come with me.”
He expected a door perhaps, but there was none. And then his host did a strange thing. He hopped on one of the junk cars with practiced precision, and then on another atop it.
“What be this, now?”
The man looked down at him and grinned. “Well, the door is on top. Come on. There is hot toddy and chicken waiting for us inside. Do you eat chicken?”
That was it. Chicken! The young man loved chicken. It was a pity his rag-picking did not yield him much money for such delicacies. It was perhaps a couple of months ago that a lady had kindly given him a bowl near the orphanage.
He went behind the man, his emotions having suddenly transformed from those of skepticism to those of anticipation of a free meal.
They went right to the top. Hopping from one car to another in the heap, they reached the roof of the building. He thought of asking about the strange way to enter a building, but he had entered stranger buildings before. He knew better than to ask at this point.
The tall man reached the roof first. With his long legs, he lumbered on it, and stopped at a particular spot and beckoned him to follow. But when he reached there, he was aghast.
There was a hole in the roof, and it opened out a room below. There was a dull light, perhaps of candles, shining in there. But what was unmistakable was the fact that this place wasn’t as abandoned as it seemed from the outside.
“Someone lives inside,” he said in amazement.
“Yes, I do,” said the tall man.
“So how do we get there?”
“You have to jump.”
“Jump? You be joking? With this foot?”
“That’s the only way to go in,” said the tall man. “All right, let me go in first and then I will keep a chair or something so that you can climb down easily. Hold on here.”
The man jumped like a panther and that was when the rag-picker had a better look at the bunches of skin on his face. He had hardly got that image out of his mind’s eye when he returned with a chair and stood on it. He held his arms wide, and the injured man slowly eased himself into them.
“Phew! This place stinks,” said the rag-picker once he was inside and could walk on the floor. “What be this smell?”
“Dead rats,” said the man. “But we are going in that inner room. I’ll anoint… treat you first.”
He opened a rickety door and the smell suddenly changed. Now it was a sweet smell of burning incense sticks and flowers. There was a trace of sandalwood in the air.
“Oh!” said the rag-picker looking at all the incense sticks. “Is this something religious?”
“Something like that,” said the man.
The walls around the place were covered with several artworks. At first, the young visitor could not see them clearly, but then as his eyes attuned to the light, he saw the strange sketches. They were unholy beings of all kinds—vetalas and pishachas and asuras—and they were painted in the goriest details.
“I drew them,” said the man. “You like?”
The rag-picker tried to ignore the gruesome details in the pictures. “Where are the herbs? I must leave.”
“What’s the hurry?” said the man. “Come on, hobble over here,” he said and put his arm around his shoulder. “Let me show you my art.”
“Ouch!” the rag-picker winced.
“Something bit me on the back.”
His host looked behind his back. He brushed something off. “There is nothing,” he said. “Must be a bug or something. Come.” And he held the man more firmly and took him to the first picture of a rakshasa devouring a horse.
The man looked intently at the picture and was soon lost in the various red and orange lines that made up most of it. He looked at the eyes of the rakshasa, which were in perfect symmetry with the dead horse’s shut eyes, and yet were in perfect contrast with them. Even with his very limited knowledge of the arts, he could say this was a brilliant piece of work.
“Ow, ow, ow, ow!” he went suddenly, snapping out of his hypnotic appreciation of the art.
“It’s still there, whatever it is.”
“Take your shirt off,” the man said.
“Is it there? Is something there?” the rag-picker asked frantically, removing the offending garment in a panic.
“Don’t fear,” said the man, and now his voice was ominous. “It’s over. For now.”
“What?” the rag-picker said. “What’s over?”
And then he caught a glimpse of his naked back in a faraway dusty mirror. He saw the eight lines that crisscrossed each other, forming a kind of intertwined pattern etched right into his back.
And before he could question the man on how that tattoo of death came upon his back, he saw the glinting weapon wrapped around his knuckles. Its sharp points over the four fingers mocked his very being.
And then he turned and saw the lone chair in that room. This is where his heart leapt out of his chest. For, on that chair was seated a wizened skeleton with no face. Or rather, it was a face that was painted with red and orange paint. But what scared him all the more were the various materials of worship rituals that were around that seated corpse. As though the corpse was a deity and this was his shrine.
“Who is…” the rag-picker began to ask, suddenly aware of the blood that was now copiously oozing out of his back.
“You won’t need to know,” said the tall man. “Ever.”
The rag-picker fumbled for words.
“It’s a divine purpose,” said the man. “I will be easy on you, though. All I need is the heart.”
An hour later, the tall man sat with the heart, neatly diced and fried, and offered it to the dead man in the shrine.
“I will atone for my sins, Father, I will,” he said. “Accept this—my humble offering to you.”