It was on a day filled with perplexities that Horatio walked into our lives. Everything about that day was filled with conundrums, right from the way the sun tore through the dark clouds in the August sky and tried, not very successfully, to throw its rays onto the earth’s surface, to how a freak accident at the railway station necessitated most offices in my part of the town to be unexpectedly shut down. Frogs croaked in the shadows, waiting for the climate to darken a little more to their liking, but the hide-and-seek played by the sun bemused them, forcing them to scurry into their holes or wherever they went when it peeked out of the clouds. Dogs mated on the roadside, hoping to make the most of the weather, but every time nature played truant, they stopped their ceaseless activity and scampered away, their lustfulness still unquenched.
Truth be told, Horatio did not really walk into our lives; he was brought into it. I remember quite lucidly—for there is very little of this episode that I have forgotten—that I had stepped out of the house during a brief sunny spell to buy something for the day’s lunch. As I made my purchase and began walking homeward, I saw this boy standing on the footpath, clearly no taller than the fire hydrant he was propped up against. I do not have a habit of looking at people on the streets, and not in the least little boys, but there was something unsettling about this one that yearned for my attention at first sight itself.
He was dressed in a white shirt with short sleeves, buttoned all the way to the top. Underneath, he wore black shorts that came halfway up to his knees. He did not have any kind of footwear on him, and that piqued my attention. Which parent would send a child out without footwear? And in this weather?
Then, I looked up, right into his face, and something stirred within my very soul. His face was of almond-shaped perfection, absolute symmetry lurking behind every feature, right up to his narrow chin. The nose was somewhat upturned, and that made his slight mouth clearly visible, and I remarked at how tightly his jaws were set, almost as if he were withholding a secret. But, the most prominent feature was the eyes—large clear white orbs with perfectly round black circles in them. And, a mere inch above those eyes were his hair. Raven-black, and straight like the bristles of a threatened porcupine. They fell right into those petulant eyes, but he did not seem to mind.
This contrast of black and white yelled out to me, making me stop in my tracks, which perhaps I had already done so by then. And then, when the boy knew he had my attention, he spoke to me.
“Sir, do you know of a place where I can sleep?”
My heart broke. That street, the Rue de l’Hôpital, was known to be the haven for several urchins and bums, and even a few hobos. Even at the moment, there was a homeless minstrel singing a ditty in the farthest corner of the street, though there was no one to hear him or, better, throw him a coin. But seeing this child, this bundle of melancholia, weeping away for a lack of a pillow was something beyond pain.
“Where are your parents?” I asked.
“I have no one,” he said.
“Then where have you come from?”
“I do not know. I was sleeping. When I woke up, I was here.”
It did not seem to be an unlikely story. Many unsavory elements were known to kidnap children and bring them to our neighborhood to beg. He seemed very much to be such a victim.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“I do not remember.”
The thunder boomed overhead, and suddenly the clouds burst, their frenzy lashing out on the ground below. I ducked under the parapet of a roadside shop, but the boy stayed rooted to the spot.
“Hey boy, come here!” I yelled. “Come in the shelter.”
He looked at me, taking his own sweet time, and then, as though he had made up his mind, took slow steps and came next to me.
“Look, my house is right here, in this building. I am going to leave now, all right?” I was shouting because I needed to be heard over the thunder and the splashing. “But I will call the police from my house. They will come and take you and find your home.”
“No!” he screamed, louder than I, though his voice sounded more like a tormented rat’s squeak. “No police! I will run away.”
“But why? They will help you.”
“No! They are bad people. They take people away and we never see them again. I don’t want them near me. I will run away; I am not lying.”
He would have acted to substantiate his words at that instant, but I quickly grabbed his arm.
“All right, all right,” I said. “Don’t run away, all right? This place is not good for little kids. Come to my house. I will ask my wife to keep you till this rain subsides. Then we will think what to do.”
“Will you?” he said, and despite the raindrops all around us, I think I saw tears in his eyes. “You are awfully nice, sir.”
“Call me Andre,” I said.
It took me a good part of half an hour to explain to Helene how I had come across the boy. “Oh Andre! You mustn’t get an orphan off the street like that,” she said. “Isn’t that criminal or something?”
That thought had not struck me until then. I contemplated on it for a moment, and then said, “Right now, the boy needs some care. He would have died in this weather. Could you be an angel and take care of him?”
“Why’re you so worried about him?”
“My heart is like that, I suppose,” I said.
Maybe that disarmed her, or maybe the kiss I planted on her cheek with that sentence. But she smiled and said, “A’right! How can I refuse when you say it like that? What’s his name?”
“He does not remember his name.”
“Let’s call him Horatio then,” she said. “He’s a character in a book I’m reading.”
Horatio had warm chicken soup after a hot-water bath. He wore Helene’s old shirt that came up to his knees, another white affair that had a pattern of thin blue lines crossing over his heart. Throughout the meal, he was quite polite and thanked us several times for taking him in. I could sense that Helene was growing fond of this boy too, and I could not fault her in that. I felt a lump in my throat every time he said, “Thank you, sir and madam. You both are so awfully nice.”
For that day at least, we were like a perfect family. In a particular weak moment, I saw Helene looking warmly at the boy as he sat watching television, and I held her hand. I knew she was thinking about our son who was never born, who suffocated and died in her womb when her tube coiled around his neck. If he had been born, he would probably have been as old as Horatio.
Then came the night.
The rain made it darker, and the fact that the windows were tightly shut to prevent even the slightest amount of moisture from seeping into the house made it mustier. The wind howling outside rattled the windows several times, which in turn rattled our very bones.
While Horatio sat at one of these closed windows, looking noiselessly out into the blind darkness, we debated our sleeping arrangements. Finally, it was decided that we would put a mattress for him in the spare room, for there was no other bed in the house apart from ours. Helene took him to the room and helped him go to bed, while I waited for her to come back in our room.
When she did, I asked her, “Did he sleep?”
“Yes,” she said. “He’s a brave little darling. Didn’t make as much as a whimper.”
“That is good.”
“Wonder where he’s come from,” said Helene. “Someone could be mighty worried about him. You must go to the police tomorrow, okay?”
“Yeah, we must, though he does not want to go with them,” I agreed. “We have no other choice.”
That night, we slept right away after Helene put the lights out. The rhythm of the environment lulled us immediately to sleep.
The night was probably halfway gone when I heard Helene’s gasp.
Still sleepy, I turned over to see what the matter was, but she blankly sat there, looking at something in the distance.
“What—” I began to ask, and then turned my head to look in the direction of her stare. And I got a start myself.
It was the boy, Horatio, standing right over the foot of our bed, looking at us with an unflinching stare.
In that moment, he seemed almost like a stone statue, as though there was no life left in him anymore.
“What is it, Horatio?” I asked, finally finding my voice.
But the boy did not move. The only sound I could hear was of Helene’s heavy breathing. I brought my body out of the blanket and walked up to him. Holding him by his shoulders, I shook him. “What is it?” I asked again.
Then he blinked several times.
“Thank you, sir and madam,” he said. “Just wanted to say that you are awfully nice.”
This time, there was no smile on his face as he said that. There was no twinkle in his eyes. Only his lips moved and the voice came from somewhere deep within his throat.
Slowly, I held his arm and said, “It is all right. But now you must sleep. Come,” and I led him to his room.
The next morning, I paid a visit to the police station on my way to work. The Boisdonné Police Station was full of frenetic activity, with the policemen in navy blue running around for something that my unaccustomed brain could not quite understand. No one saw me walk in, and I found the way myself to an officer who sat at the front desk with a huge ledger.
“Sir,” I said, clearing my throat, “I found a boy on the street yesterday. I would like to see him united with his parents.”
“Where is he now?” said the officer without even a pretense for cordiality. Police officers, I think, deal with so many criminals in a day that they cannot quite understand people who do not fall in that category.
“He is at my home now, being looked after by my wife.”
“You shoulda brought ’im. What good is a missing lad if we can’t see ’im? I ’ope you aren’t ’iding something.”
“No, sir, of course not! The boy is paranoid of the police. He is reluctant to come.”
“That be no excuse; anyway you seem to be a man of a decent business. Right now, we’re chock full with complaints. The train accident ’as been pretty nasty too. Been driving us up the wall, matching the bodies with their families like that.”
“So, should I come again?”
He considered me for a moment, and then stood up and got a huge file from the top shelf of his cabin. “This is all the missing complaints we ’ave. See it and tell me if you can see the lad in ’ere.”
He pointed to a bench near the door. I lugged the heavy file and sat on the bench, seated next to someone who looked every inch a rapist or a murderer.
It took me well over fifteen minutes to go over all the pictures. They were all boys and girls, and ironically they were laughing in these pictures, their eyes hopeful of a brilliant future looming in front of them. And now, probably, they were in a ditch somewhere with random limbs torn off their bodies to make a living through begging.
“He is not in here,” I told the officer when I was done.
“That be a crying shame for sure,” said the officer as he took the file back. “But did you look good and proper? That’s a lot of missing kids in there.”
This kind of conversation went on for five more minutes and I realized the officer’s reluctance in even filing a complaint.
“Our files are full!” he said. “So many stray children in the city! Any more of them and we will burst!”
But, finally, he gave me some assurance. “If someone comes up reporting a missing kid like you’ve described, with all the details you gave, then we’ll come knocking at your door.”
“When could that be?” I asked.
“How do I say that?” He threw his hands in the air.
“So, until then?”
“Well, until then keep the frigging critter with you, or send ’im to the convent, or turn ’im out in the street and ’ope ’e doesn’t run away or get carried away.”
When I returned home, I saw him shelling peas in the kitchen with Helene. He was wearing a new shirt and shorts, and my eyes made a quizzical gesture.
“We’d been shopping,” said Helene. “Doesn’t he look cute?”
There was a certain wistfulness in her tone. Then he asked for ice-cream and she gave it to him without a moment’s hesitation. Ice-cream? I do not remember having that in the house ever. She never bought it for us, for me.
I should have realized then—my pretty wife was slipping. She was entering into a dangerous world of delusional solace, for this child was not ours. That was never meant to be.
But I did not want to burst her bubble just then. It would have been brutal. A new fondness is highly difficult to break. But if it stews awhile, the chinks of familiarity begin to show themselves and the fondness runs out its course. I decided to let it proceed as it did.
The child smiled at me, but I did not return that faint quivering of his thin lips. I moved on to our room, changed, and came out again for lunch.
The boy was at the table again, but this time he was sitting more cozily than on the previous day, cozy to the point of being smug. I sensed, not without discomfort, the sense of belonging that was swelling up within him, and my gaze was fixated on how Helene kept putting things in his plate that he did not say no to.
For the first time in years, Helene and I did not have any conversation at a dinner table we shared. It irked me, for on each occasion that I opened my mouth to say something, I found her face turned to see his—that wretched boy whom I had brought home in a moment of passion.
And so I ate my dinner, eating it just for the purpose of filling my stomach and not for any other reason that a homely person might have a family meal for.
Over the days, my hate increased. The boy, who had once enamored me with just his eyes, and convinced me to act against my best counsel, had now turned to be an eyesore. If he were a mere pet, I would have turned him out without as much as batting an eyelid. But the fondness that Helene seemed to have developed for him proved to be a major deterrent in implementing such a plan.
There were several painful occasions when I found them neatly ensconced in each other’s company, whispering things into each other’s ears, usually when they thought they had the advantage of being out of my line of sight. But though my eyes could not see them at all times, my ears would hear them. Even when they slept, I could hear them, hear them in the silence until that began to deafen me.
I paid several visits to the police station, in the vain hope that someone might have come to collect the boy, but he was as yet unclaimed. They offered me to send him to the convent, and that thought held my interest, but for Helene. Then, after I had been visiting for close to a month, I heard the snide comments the officers made behind my turned back, and therein were some words no sane man should have to hear—of them all, the one that lingered was ‘lunatic’. That was when I decided I would not visit the infernal place again.
Things began to drastically change after that last visit to the police station. It was a late evening when Helene was working elsewhere in the house and I was sitting on the couch, my head buried in a book. The boy sat at his favorite place by the window, looking out into the increasing darkness. I never could fathom what he could see in there, but I never questioned him, for those were the few instances when my wife did not seem to be hypnotized by whatever the charm was that he had.
However, on this particular instance, I heard a sound escaping his lips. I could not see them, but there was certainly a few words there, floating without direction in the air, hoping for some ear to receive them.
Strangely, I felt there was an ear.
I just could not see it.
I moved closer. I needed to hear what the boy said. If nothing, it could allay my manic state. And then, as I moved almost within an arm’s reach of him, I heard it:
“I am all right, mother. These people are nice.”
I suddenly turned, turned to face the window, and perhaps I thought I saw a shadow escaping but nothing more than that. At that very moment, a wail seemed to emanate from the air outside the window, but it was quickly drowned in the hollow rattling of the wind against the windowpane, and the boy turned to look at me.
I thought I should spring up at him, and tell him, “Ah, so that is what you are hiding! You have a mother out there,” but before I could say or even properly think anything of that sort, the boy broke out into a loud wail.
No, it was not the crying that kids his age are prone to do. This was hollow, and had an ominous ring to it.
And in that brief instant, I saw. The eyes, the very eyes that had captivated me once, turned fully black, and the lashes grew longer even as I stared.
And there was a grin on his face, a grin sans any mirth; it was but a curve of pure wickedness, and I knew there was evil in my house.
I stumbled against a piece of furniture and fell backward, landing with a soft thud on the carpet. Then I saw the familiar hem of Helene’s gown busily swishing into the room.
“What happened here?” she shrieked. “Are you all right… Horatio?”
Here I was, fallen on the floor, and all she cared about was that little devil? I sat up, angry words foaming at the corners of my mouth, but what I saw arrested me.
The scene that I was faced with was reminiscent of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus n, the innocent lamb that was being prepared for sacrifice, tended by his mother who knew nothing. He had returned to his childlike self, and Helene, in her blindness, did not even see the gash that had begun to spew blood through the back of my shirt.
I refused to stay alone with him after that, even though Helene was going rapidly insane with her obsession for him. “He’s our son,” she told me one day. “Come back to us. Don’t you see?”
“Stupid woman!” I yelled. “Dead people do not come back.”
“Look at his face! Isn’t it just like mine? He’s my son. I’m his mother. I know. No one can take him away from me.”
“He is not our son!” I shouted back, clasping the palms of my hand against my ears, and I ran out of the room even as she stood breathing heavily in the center of the room.
And that evening, it happened again. I was immersed in reading a particularly interesting article in a newspaper when I suddenly heard breathing next to me. I lifted my eyes and was shocked to the bone. The boy was sitting on the couch next to me, close to the point of uneasiness.
“You don’t like me?” he asked. “Why you don’t like me? I thought you are awfully nice.”
These were not the words of a child. The sound was of him, but the passion behind his words seemed to belong more suitably to some jilted lover. I could not find words to answer him.
“Tell me, Andre,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you let me be near my mother?”
He moved closer to me, his little spindly knee jabbing into my thigh.
“This is my home too, you know?” his words went on. “Why haven’t you realized that so far?”
“Who… who is your mother?” I asked, my uttermost thoughts shaping themselves into words.
“My mother is a witch. An awfully nice witch.”
That moment, when I still fumbled to get my voice again, Helene emerged from the bathroom and sat next to the boy on the couch. In a chirpy voice she said, “I’m so glad to see you two together. This is a joyous moment, isn’t it?”
She took the boy on her lap, and they sat with smiles of contentment on their faces. I saw that smile and it horrified me to see how similar they were, but what horrified me more was the way their eyes turned. It was happening again, and this time, Helene’s eyes grew black in tandem with that boy’s, and the malevolent grins grew on both their faces, which were frozen cheek-to-cheek as though for a photograph. In that moment, the thunder clapped and the lightning struck, and I could take it no more.
That night, when darkness ruled the house, I got out of the bedroom leaving Helene in there, and tiptoed to the little room in which the boy slept. Creeping more silently than even the shadows that lurked in the house, I slowly came up to his door and pushed it open.
I had hoped to catch him in his sleep and quash his existence right then, for he was not unlike any rat that I had so often terminated from the house. To achieve that object, I carried the bust of an Egyptian statue in my hands, a heavy and grotesque ornament that my wife had procured on one of our foreign travels. I even pictured myself hoisting that thing up in the air and letting it fall on that evil creature’s black-haired head, thus removing myself out of my misery forever.
But that was not to be.
For the boy was not in his sleep. Instead, he was sitting up on the mattress, facing the door with a solemn look, his eyes staring at their widest extent.
And despite the darkness, I was conscious of the blackness in them.
Then he grinned, that same spiteful grin that had begun to haunt me in my nights and in my days, and I saw the marks of vileness beginning to erupt on his cheeks.
“What are you up to, Andre?” he hissed.
Before I could move, before I could respond, his mouth contorted into an oval hollow and from there emanated a wail most vile. Nay, it was not just a scream but a caterwaul, a sound that could raise the dead from the grave.
I turned and saw Helene standing right behind me.
And the communion between the two, evil child and evil mother, had never been more apparent as then. I saw it, I saw it clear as day—her hair flying despite the stillness of air in the room, her eyes turning to nothing but black beads of doom, her mouth turning into a source of the most revolting stench.
In the next instant, she was on the ground.
The bust in my hand dripped blood, her blood, and the corresponding wound on the side of her head needed no further testimony as to the cause of her death.
From the corner of my fast-swooning eye, I saw the boy rise on his limbs, more like a spider, and walk like the same creature that he resembled now, up to the window. With one hand, he opened the window, and escaped into the darkness of the night.
They still call me lunatic, now with greater vehemence than ever. Earlier the word was a whisper; now it is spat into my face.
And it is not the only word that they speak.
Wife-killer is another.
Sitting there in my cell which is almost a dungeon as dark as the inside of my heart, I brood in silence. I have no remorse for having killed my wife, and I do not expect these people to understand, because only I had seen the witch in her. I heard they had a prayer in the church for her, but all I could hear was a bundle of lies.
But why should I explain anything to anyone?
I am happy here.
Happy in my desolation.
Happy that I can see no one. That no one can see me.
He comes in the nights, right through the bars, and sits on my stone bed next to me. His face is still like an almond, and his hair are still black, and black also are his eyes. For he does not need to hide them from anyone anymore.
And when I feed him the leftover food in my prison plate, he sometimes tells me even now, “You are so awfully nice.”