Fear knows no fear of boundaries.
It enters my cabin, nonchalant, sneaking through the walls of a police station and consumes me. It traverses in stealth, unbeknown to armed guards keeping vigil, passing like streaks of light through glass panes insulating my privacy while emulating transparency. Fear isn’t concerned about prying into the heart of the senior-most officer in the precinct, a deputy superintendent vested with the power to command a legion of hundreds.
In this small town nestling on the shores of the Arabian Sea, where Gandhi’s picture hanging on the wall behind me symbolizes the delivery of justice, my position represents the ultimate authority in law and order. But fear, unmindful of my power, terrorizes me.
It’s a primeval fear.
When I take a leak, its tentacles rise from unseen depths through pores in the urinal and slip inside my zip. They caress my libido in a shameless gesture of carnal appetite, crawl out from underneath the elastic band of my briefs, and creep along my six pack ab. The fear dominates.
So intense in its arrival, its lingering permeation over my skin so chilling, that my body shivers, teeth grit. Jolts cause pee spill, blemishing my khaki uniform with stains of wetness.
Audacious, brazen, unabashed, fear rules…
It’s over a month since fear has infested my soul. The initial incursion has occurred when I returned home from Pinky’s apartment after attending a routine complaint.
But its first entry to my office premises occurs on the day Sunil Verma stands tall in front of his cabin opposite mine, top two buttons of his polo shirt open, showing curly hairs that matted his chest, scrawny legs spread apart.
“I am the super cop, no doubts about that,” he says.
He runs a hand along his caved-in cheek. Days, perhaps weeks of lack of sleep becomes evident from the way weariness reflects in his red eyes. “I’m not afraid of you freaks.” His eyes rove over his juniors, a couple of sub-inspectors who sit at their desks in a corner of the main hall.
Watching him on my CCTV monitor, I know he’ll never be. It’s he who takes the Special Task Force men to hunt down Maoists, while his colleagues prefer to bend over paper work. He’s the only one that doesn’t mind forsaking his family and comforts to lie in ambush, days at a stretch, to eliminate the threat of radicals, to rid the society of a menace. He fears nothing.
I prove wrong, the very day, the very moment.
One of the sub-inspectors snaps. Frustration on the mention of preference for desk-job; realization of conformity to the demands of a beautiful wife and a child; choice to stay away from dangers unless intervention becomes too inevitable...
When it comes to the question of sanitizing real sinners, saints hold back. Demons like Sunil, who listen neither to sermons nor to confessions, take charge.
Sermons are for preachers, confessions are for sinners. I’m neither. Sunil has told when we sat in a toddy shop on the borders of the seashore, drinking toddy tainted with shots of scotch, eating roasted mussels blemished with smears of tomato sauce.
The sub-inspector, ego bruised, picks up a paperweight and throws it saying, “Super cop, without a super baby to inherit the traits.”
A bang follows as the glass-sphere hits a steel rack on the opposite wall. The super cop breaks, brittle and fragile, like glass.
As I get up to interfere, Sunil dashes in, throwing open my cabin’s glass door. Like a colt, racing towards the udder of its mother.
I’ve recognized his affinity for me. I know I’m the only one he likes in the entire department. But his present behavior triggers a bolt of current beneath my feet.
Sunil has knelt before me, arms wrapped around my legs, and begun to weep. “The bastards used a pig…” he says between sobs, “…fucking slit its belly, stuffed a bomb inside, and sewed the gash.”
Sunil had never told me. Media reports highlighted the gruesome killing of eight Maoists in an encounter, supplemented with their photographs, with a mention of death of two Special Task Force men; no trap, no pig. Maybe, shreds of pork got mistaken for the minced meat of policemen, strewn on brush in the jungle. Forensics need not confirm, DNA not required. Shreds of torn IDs scattered off their ripped off pockets and duty logs back in the office sufficed for identifying who’s who. No names, no credits.
“The fourth day…” Sunil breaks into another bout of sobs.
I pull him up, seat him, and go back to my chair. “Take it easy.” I toss a packet of cigarettes across my table towards him.
Sunil lights one, takes a drag. “No rations left, but I insisted we keep scouting the jungle.” The cigarette seems to have settled his nerves. He speaks in a collected manner. “As dusk fell, two of my constables saw the pig. Throat slit, blood still oozing out.”
There’s nothing I can say to mitigate his pain.
He takes another drag at the cigarette and continues, “Even as I called out to them not to touch it, the IED exploded. Both their bodies burst like popping cotton bolls, and torn flesh scattered in the bush.”
Sunil stops, coughing. He stubs out the cigarette on the table, smearing the glass top. Ashtray remains unused. “It took us almost six hours to catch up with the bastards. I gave the orders to fire. We killed seven and just one survived… a boy, maybe seventeen. I held his mouth open, thumb on one side of his cheek and fingers digging into the other. My constables watched. Mature men who had families… and children.” Sunil takes a breath. “I reloaded my pistol.”
Sunil forgets that I’m not merely a colleague he trusts, but also an officer conducting the departmental inquiry into allegations of use of excessive force against him.
“He looked at me, eyes pleading. My fingers pressed harder, his mouth opened wider.”
Sunil continues. “I closed my eyes and emptied my weapon.”
After having sent Sunil to a nearby hospital for clinical evaluation, I remain in my office. I don’t have to be a psychologist to read his symptoms as manifestation of PTSD.
I know these people will put me away, he’s said. Confine me to a mental asylum. I’ll miss the cold touch of my Browning. He’s always kept his weapon stowed under the band of his briefs instead of shoving it into its holster. The pistol’s absence, he’s added, will empty me of my sense of machismo.
Sunil has revealed secrets he must not. He’s confided, perhaps convinced that I’ll always go by the code of ethics for inquiry officers, not rely on any material other than the evidence brought into the proceedings. And he’s chosen a wrong day to make a confession, when I am about to conclude the inquiry.
What factors do bear upon one’s decisions? It’s his fault that he killed the boy. It’s immoral. Moreover, my responsibility towards the society is far greater than my compliance to ethical principles while inquiring into the highhandedness of another officer.
I’m aware of Sunil’s heavy drinking, a maladaptive means of coping with his stress. Indulgence in domestic violence, a vent to exhaust his distress; antagonism toward colleagues a mechanism to deal with his trauma…
It’s his fault, he should’ve controlled his drinking, shouldn’t have been beating his wife up, shouldn’t have harbored grudge against his colleagues.
I contemplate, again.
A threat; to family, colleagues, and self; an unwanted element whose presence works against my vested interests…
I endorse the findings in my report, even before the process completes; judge him guilty, unfit for service until evaluation and treatment is completed. I engage in unethical practice, allow extraneous matters to bear upon the case.
Don’t I have an onus to protect his wife… to prevent her from being subjected to torture day after day?
I go a step ahead.
It’s a part of my duty, I owe at least that much to her...
I ring the psychologist at the hospital, using the landline phone. “Assign him to a mental asylum,” I say. “He’s a danger best put away.”
My authority sustains. The psychologist answers with silence.
I’ve done a great service; to his wife, to his colleagues, and the society. She’ll be happy, peace be with her.
As I close the report and prepare to leave, I feel a sudden chill inside my chest and a sensation as if a cold membrane is encasing my heart. Fear begins its takeover.
People who engage in a noble deed need not worry about the consequences of their action.
I leave for Pinky’s flat.
I’ve made it a habit to walk the half mile to Pinky’s residence lest I become too conspicuous to neighbors by an identifiable vehicle.
On the way, by the side of the highway, amidst foliages and thick growth of shrubs, ensnared by creepers and carpeted by grass, lies the graveyard.
Souls and fossils of bones rot in decayed remains of flesh. Desires and dreams choke within the constraints of bricks and concrete encasing tombs. Incontinent feelings suffocate in the confines of material restraints.
The insides of tombs fill with unfulfilled cravings, trying to grapple their way out, fighting with scents of decayed flesh and perishing bones. Outside, masons’ craft reflect in the way bricks and grains of sand hold together, bonded by the glue of cement, to contain the resonating laments of souls rotting inside. Neither a whiff of decay nor a sound of despair escapes.
Just the way I’ve choked Sunil’s yearnings, his expressions of disgust in what he’s become.
As I am about to pass the entrance of the graveyard, I notice Dinakaran, the drifter, whom Sunil often uses as a source for collecting intelligence.
He sits on a grave, gravely grave, waving as I approach him, chewing on the butt of a cigarette that he’s just stubbed out. The glaring lights of passing vehicles illuminate his lean frame attired in torn jeans and a soiled T-shirt. A thin line of saliva oozes from a corner of his mouth and trails down the pepper-and-sand stubs of hair on his chin.
He fishes a packet of cigarettes from his pocket and offers it to me, wiping his chin with the back of a hand. “Have one, sir. It’s cheap, not the type you use. But it’s strong. It’s always good to taste something different.”
If a skinny drifter like him can withstand it, why can’t I with a lithe figure and all the powers bestowed on me?
I pick one and light it. The bite of a strange tang stings my palate, making me cough. “Isn’t that hard,” I say, returning the packet.
Dinakaran laughs, accepts the cigarettes, and lights one. His lips shiver like Sunil’s as he draws in the smoke. He relishes it, sucking in puff after puff, the tip glows and fades like a vehicle’s indicator signaling a turn.
The night air suddenly becomes chilly. A strong wind sends shivers along my body. Crickets chirp, the shrillness of their voice unnerving.
Dinakaran still sits, chewing and smoking, simultaneous intake of tobacco rendering him respite, maybe a sort of calmness. He runs a hand along his chin. “This is Dinakaran,” he says. “Giving you light and shadow… without light there’s no shadow. So I’m everything; both things.” He stands up, removes his clothes, and resumes sitting.
Maybe, Dinakaran takes pride in his name, which means the Sun God.
Crickets still chirp. The wind persists. My body keeps shivering. My teeth, strong and white, grit.
Dinakaran continues to sit, smoking, sans any manifestation of the chill biting through the pores of his naked skin, a supercilious smile writ large on his face. Then he stands up, tall and looming.
Too tall for his five-and-a-half feet frame, towering over my six feet athletic body, casting a dark shadow over my fair skin.
Wind laps up with the ferocity of arctic storms, dry chill spikes through my skin. Dinakaran’s clenched jaws disengage, and then disintegrate. The stench of stale tobacco and the reek of cheap whiskey, mixed with drying saliva, remind me of maggots creeping out of rotten cadavers.
His towering figure says, running dirty fingers through grey hair, “I’m Dinakaran, the super snob. All you ... get lost. Let me ...”
Some of his words drown in the growling pit of his throat. Some get carried away in the wind. Some ricochet as echoes from my hurting eardrums.
The uneven teeth lining his jaws grit, producing crackling sounds. Then he closes his mouth, makes a gurgling sound. He opens his eyes and disgorges a thick clot of blood. Fallen teeth gleam from scarlet stains on the grave’s grassy carpet.
Feet laden with lead, fatigue tormenting thigh muscles, melting bones flowing down as molten lava through calves, I run blindly forth, trying to shut out the horrific images.
Panting, dazzled by the heaves of air churning within swollen lungs, short of breath, I slump to the ground, far away from the towering demon Dinakaran has transformed into. The chill, by now, has left my body. The strain of escape has heated up my blood, warmed my muscles. Burning embers begin to crawl up, down and around my thighs and calves. Hit by a spray of clotted blood purged by Dinakaran, my back has drenched, and my shirt sticks to my skin.
My hand flings to my back, peels the soaking layer of cloth away. A warm wetness dampens my fingers; Dinakaran’s blood.
I stare at the pale tips of my fingers. It bears nothing, except a light shade of pink, the color of rosy fingers. No marks of blood, but wetness all the same; wetness of sweat that runs down my shoulders; wetness that could be mistaken for blood; wetness that can glue one’s clothes to his skin.
The escape from Dinakaran’s demonic presence settles my nerves. Now there’s nothing. No demons, no gore, no filth.
Yet, in a corner, in one of those dark recesses of my mind, the primeval fear still lurks, obstinately sticking out its forked tongue, baring its curved fangs, sending out feelers, trying to creep into my vulnerability as I press Pinky’s doorbell.
She welcomes me, warmth pouring out from her lips.
“I need a drink,” I tell her as I settle down on a single sofa in the bedroom.
She fetches the drink, keeps it on the bedside table, and sits on the bed, hoisting her left leg on her right. “You look haggard,” she says. “A tough day in office?”
I reach for the drink. “Yeah, just another day in a policeman’s work, I guess.” I don’t want her to see through my treachery. So I don’t speak anymore.
She looks at me, her eyes probing into mine. Does she know? Maybe not… after all, I I’m good at the art of manipulation…
I pick up the glass and twirl the drink with the stirrer. The ice cubes make clinking noises against crystal.
“So, what’s he hunting today?” The question shocks me. It’s as if she’s known and so she’s deliberately speaking in riddles.
I play along, not wanting to risk any betrayal of my feelings. “As usual, demons…” For a distraction, I stir the liquor again, remove the stirrer, and take a sip. I set the glass down and notice a black blemish, dotting an ice cube.
“And, how long he’ll be gone?” Pinky asks.
I blink at her, resume scrutiny of the ice cube. Through a film of melting ice, I see a black widow’s body that the freezer has shrunken into a tiny ball, within solidifying water. Its thin legs wrapped around its swollen abdomen as if its own organ has been a prey stuck to the trap of its web.
Pinky stands up. “I think he won’t come back tonight, at least.” She slips her gown off her shoulders. It falls around her feet in a bright orange heap.
I grab the glass, down the drink in one lusty swig.
Pinky runs a hand along her pink panties’ band. Her fingers alluringly dance across her belly.
I feel the sting of the black widow’s fangs on the inner wall of my gut. Cramps rock my six pack ab. I clutch at my stomach.
Pinky looks at me quizzically, removing her bra. “Yet another fall from grace?”
Fear appears, dominant, indomitable. It bares its ugly teeth, staring at me from her brown areola. She stands, squeezing the oversized flesh of her breasts, pouting obscenely at me, sticking out her tongue.
I notice a distorted orange formation with green patches on her underbelly. It moves gingerly downwards. Slowly, at a snail’s pace, it slithers inside Pinky’s panties. The dewdrop spider sneaks into its refuge.
She shudders spasmodically once. Then with a vulgar smile creasing her face, she picks up her gown, throws it across her shoulder, and walks toward the bathroom, the ample globes of her buttocks quivering.
The orange mark creeps outside and moves onto the small of her back. It twirls on Pinky’s skin and just as she crosses the door, I see a face etched on her back. The corners of its mouth stretch in a fiendish snarl.
“You’re next.” I am sure I’ve heard a distinct and familiar voice.
Running away from the demon on Pinky’s back has been harder than bolting out of the reach of Dinakaran’s retch.
The fear, overwhelmingly over-dominant, still rules. It dictates where my feet take me. My brain, numbed by fear, divests its controls.
It frees me of the shackles of prudence, leads my feet back to the cemetery. A cold whiff of air brushes against my fuming nostrils.
Dinakaran isn’t there.
The grave remains, ensnared, wrapped in moss, still containing odors and desires rotting within. Still itself, gravely grave, fuming inside and peeling outside. Yet, it’s intact, serving its purpose of containing its contents.
I feel wisps of steam rise from my body. I wriggle; a serpent discarding its skin. I feel a searing pain suddenly course along my body; acid touching my skin.
Wisps escaping my body take shape; a shadow pulls out of me. It moves onto a grave. It sits, perched on the grave and announces, “I’m a corpse, arisen from dead.”
It beckons me with a hand. “C’mon, sit here. Let’s discuss about Sunil.”
“I rather prefer to discuss ‘bout Pinky,” I say. I no more feel afraid.
“Either way, it’s our last talk,” the voice croaks.
“No. You are.”
I stand watching as it merges into the air like a wisp of smoke.
My hands, clawing at the glass panes of my cell, hurt. I listen to voices from the room opposite mine.
Its door opens.
Sunil stands, arms crossed on his chest. “I refuse to come out,” he says.
I nod my approval. Inside this building there are no graves to prick the inmates’ memory, to sensitize them to the suffocating desires dying inside.
After all, Sunil is my junior colleague, someone’s interest I must protect. I don’t think he needs the burden of memories. I don’t want to send him to the scavengers who pick him to tear his flesh.
“Right choice,” I say smiling, waiting for him to smile back.
I take pride.
He does, too, refusing to walk out to a sane world.
Author Notes: Hareendran Kallinkeel lives in Kerala, India, after a stint of 15 years in a police organization and five years in Special Forces. Waking from a hiatus of nearly a decade, he has recently returned to fiction writing. Prior to the hiatus, he has been published in online and print magazines. The title story of his short fiction collection, “A Few Ugly Humans,” has earned a nomination for the Pushcart Prize in 2005.
Recent publications include flash fiction pieces in Aphelion-Webzine in their September and October 2017 issues. His stories are forthcoming in November issue of Scarlet Leaf Review and December issue of Flash Fiction Magazine.