‘Welcome, my toy boy.’
She bowed as we stepped on the threshold of that house. And I noticed a lock lying ruptured on the stairs. Was that blood soaked brick, which she pushed away with her foot? As we entered the house, she said: ‘This house, as you must have guessed, isn’t mine. I seized it in the morning… broke open the lock to enter, as I thought we’d need a love nest for the night. But this doesn’t make me a thief. Does it?’
I kept staring at the bushes where a rodent nibbled at something resembling a rotting human thumb. Maybe I was hallucinating.
We entered the house. I looked around and saw the cobwebs swinging from the ceiling and cracks crisscrossing its entire dimension. I wiped dust from the top of a stool. I looked at the walls – there was a family portrait on one wall. I placed the stool under it and climbed to wipe the dust off. It had the picture of a man, a woman, and a little girl. The girl was smiling, but her parents looked pensive. That was the only picture on the walls and I returned to the floor. I turned my eyes back to the woman I had, with me that night.
‘Until the family returns, the house is mine,’ she said, as she poured a white wine called Liebfraumilch, in a big brass glass.
I noticed that she was wearing a nose ring and had kajal in her eyes. She wasn’t a day more than thirty-five, I guessed.
‘…and let’s drink to the absent people,’ she said, as she handed me the glass.
She didn’t pour a drink for herself.
‘And to the missing writers,’ I winked. I was repeating the words she had said a month ago, when she hitched a ride in my car when I was returning from the Press Conference announcing the movie adaptation of another of my novel considered trash by the snooty intellectuals. Many writers had gone missing in the last few months.
‘We should climb the stairs and spend our night under a moonlit sky,’ she said.
And so with a big bottle of the German wine tucked under her arm, she led me to the roof. And I followed her – growing languid with the loving wine.
The house had an immense roof and the moon shone bright that night. I saw that a loyal paint had marked a grid on the grey surface, over which we stood. Numbers from one to hundred glistened on the grid – one number for each square, and each number painted in topaz. And I saw blue snakes painted on the grid; the snakes connected the squares of the grid. And there were many a white ladder, too – painted on the same surface of the vast roof.
‘Snakes and ladders,’ I said excitedly. I had never been so excited, except when my first book hit the jackpot and turned a bestseller. But whatever excitement I had, fizzled when the critics turned into ruthless junta, and massacred my works without even reading them.
So excited was I to see a game from my childhood painted on that grand roof, that I spilled the remaining drops of the wine.
‘Janam Mrityu, it is called here,’ the lady said, and poured me another round of the liquid.
‘Janam Mrityu?’ I said.
‘Yes, birth or death. Now let’s play this game while you drink this bewitching wine,’ she said. ‘I never disobey my heart and now it asks me to roll the dice…’
She lifted a dice – that had numbers carved in white on a black wood – from a corner on the roof. The dice overflowed out of her palm, and so she moved her other palm to hold it safe. Then, she asked me to join her at the bottom square, after collecting my dice.
‘But I think we play this game with one dice?’ I protested.
‘We do. But such a large board demands the players to have their own dice. Or how would they pass the dice?’ she said.
So I collected my dice, with black numerals carved on an elephant tusk. And in my case, as it fitted perfectly in one palm, I could hold the glass of wine in the other hand. I poured myself another drink and joined her at the start. She rolled her dice and got a six. She hopped to the sixth square and rolled her dice again. It flashed three; she climbed the ladder from the ninth square to reach the forty-second square.
‘The Ladder of Asceticism, that was,’ she said.
And I rolled the ivory dice and got a one. I drowned my sadness in two big gulps of the white wine; sadness that two of my fellow writers had wound up dead and skinned in the dumps near the book-shops that sold novels by weight, like cheap onions. One was a writer of cookery books. Another wrote erotica for bored wives. One had his tongue chewed off, another had a tiny porcupine inserted in his… That’s too gruesome to say, so I’ll keep mum. I was also sad for being shunned by the hoi-polloi, who loved me once. The masses have moved on to newer, cheaper writers. They didn’t buy my books. They didn’t read my columns, in which I talked about topics of which I had no idea. Earlier these same readers lapped up whatever I served them. Not anymore. The critics were happy at my inevitable demise, for I had ruined an entire generation. They forgot that now lesser, vulgar writers were moving to fill up the vacuum left by me.
She rolled again – a random roll – and reached the forty-seventh square. And I rolled a six and a three and missed The Ladder of Asceticism. I poured another drink to drown my sorrow.
‘You slog, like your prose,’ she said.
‘And you glide, like all women do,’ I said.
She tossed her dice, and got four. That took her to the fifty-first square. She released a hurrah, and climbed the white ladder to reach the square 67.
‘This is my night,’ she said. ‘Tonight you are my suitor, my man suit. Err, mon cher Monsieur.’
But then she sighed and said, ‘The winner is the loser in this game.’
‘And my virtuous one, what ladder was that?’ I merely asked.
‘Ladder of Faith,’ she said. ‘Faith that you have in abundance in your writing.’
Standing on the tenth square, I rolled my dice and got a six; and then I rolled again and got a four. I had reached the square number twenty.
She rolled three to reach the seventieth square.
‘Roll one to climb The Ladder of Courage,’ she said.
And my dice, seemingly, obeyed. I was pleased as I climbed the ladder to reach square 71. I was ahead of her – one square ahead. But her dice rolled again and flashed a five. She reached square 75 – four squares ahead of me. It was my turn and I rolled the dice, still heady with wine and my last success.
The dice showed five; and at square number 76, a serpent dipped its fangs in my skin to drag me down to the sixty-third square.
‘While the white ladders help the virtuous one climb, the azure snakes sit ready to drag a sinner down,’ I said glumly. ‘But tell me the name of the snake that pulled me down.’
‘The Snake of Lust,’ she said.
She rolled her dice and escaped the same snake narrowly. It was two and she sat smugly on the square 77.
On that moonlit night, we played a game of sins and virtues, of serpents and ladders. I was bitten by two more snakes – the Snake of Pride, and the Snake of Murder, she revealed – in the course of the game, and languished at the fourth square. And she had tiptoed to the ninety-fourth square. She rolled two and reached the 96th square – just four squares from the win.
Standing upon the fourth square, I rolled my dice, and saw a six flash its grin on the dice of ivory. I walked to the tenth square. I got another turn and rolled a six, again. I had earned another chance and was growing proud of my little victories. I had to throw a five to climb the old Ladder of Courage. Alas! I rolled another six.
‘Back to square one,’ she said.
Three sixes in a row had sent me to the start. The woman needed to roll four to reach the final square. And she durst not throw a one, as it would’ve caused her to become a victim of the largest snake – The Snake of Rage. If she had thrown a one then she would’ve ended on square two. But she rolled a four – an exact four – to reach the final square.
‘You win,’ I said. ‘You live and I die.’
But the lady wasn’t ecstatic. She shook her head, unpleased with her triumph.
She asked: ‘So who is the winner – the one who stays in the game or the one who is thrown out?’
And so I was the winner, caught eternally in the grid – a grid where my fortune seesawed with the random roll of dice.
And she took her top off. She was left with only a loud lilac skirt on her body. And I saw a jewel of lapis lazuli, which caressed her navel. On that moonlit night, I grew languid with desire. A man should bury his desire, before his desire buries him, I thought. Obviously I brushed that thought away.
I asked her name, as I laid her on the mighty Snake of Lust. And she said: ‘Why should I tell you my name, when you’ll ask it again in the morning?’
Rightly said, I thought.
‘I am a novice in the fine art of lovemaking,’ I confessed.
‘Touché!’ she agreed even before she had a taste of my prowess.
And we made love in the light of moon. ‘You’re my first lover,’ she said, as we began. As we neared the end, she said: ‘You’re the best lover I’ve ever had.’
As I pushed inside her, she bit hard on my tongue. I could taste rusty iron of blood oozing out of my tongue and pulled my face away in a reflex. Had she grown bigger in the seconds she fed on my blood? I was hallucinating, perhaps. She pulled my face closer and as I witnessed her eyes growing the bluest blue, her tongue caressed my teeth and insisted them to open up. That tongue slithered and whirled and soon it was as if I had a porcupine making way towards my throat. I was a weakling in her giant-like arms, my head pushed hard to the ground. Her nails dug right down to my spinal cord. Her face was like a nova soon, as she extracted her long nails out of my flesh. That tongue still clogged my mouth and I slipped towards a state of nothingness…
Hours passed. Or maybe days. Who knows?
I opened my eyes to these words. No moon, no roof. Only a giddy me with my hands hovering above my head, and there he was standing tall and upside down. Another era passed before I realized it was actually me who was hanging upside down from the ceiling, and blood had caked up on the floor beneath me.
His body gyrated to Hello Horses. And he wore nothing except a skin-brown robe. He was swaying and dancing with arms raised dervish-like. The mystical dance stopped the exact moment the guitar riff faded. And he wiped beads of sweat off his forehead and moved to a shelf where a heavy, old-fashioned sewing machine rested. I felt drained of all energy. He bent down to search the racks and rose up, dancing to some music which I could not hear. And he held two metal things as he danced; the same things which flashed the light off the lamp that hit my eyes hard. He swayed and turned towards me. That robe was magnificent yet something was amiss.
‘Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music,’ he said. And he kept swaying to unheard melody, coming closer with every twirl. And like a dervish he was banging the two metal things.
‘When I used to smile and cry reading your five something novels, others used to call me insane too. Where is the music, they said?’
As he swayed closer, I noticed those shiny things were scalpel and forceps.
‘But today I’ll keep you close to my heart.’
As I looked into the bluest of blue eyes, I recognized my last aware night’s companion, the hitch-hiker who had added zing to my mid-age blues. The skin-brown man suit was almost complete, except the hole at the left from where a breast peeked behind a scalped off nipple. I tried to scream, no sound came out of my mouth. I struggled to move away as the scalpel teased the air surrounding left side of my chest. And as the cold blade of scalpel touched my body, I heard my host say the words from my last book that in refined English meant: ‘Give me my sunshine, or fuck off.’
Fresh drops of blood, dropped cherry-like on the dry cake beneath me. And I turned into a no-thing as the sewing machine sang chuka, chuka, chuka, chuka, and sublime strains of Trans-Ascending soothed the campy air…
©2011, Bhupendra Singh