In the attic

Manu peddled his cycle with all his might. The dusk was being engulfed by the impending night and he had to reach his family home, five kilometers away, before darkness fell. His brothers had left an hour earlier; they did not want their eight-year-old brother to tag along.

As Manu approached the old pump house, his heart began to pound faster. He prayed to all the gods he knew to not let the chain of his rickety cycle come off. It was said the pump house was haunted by the souls of an uncountable number of young men who had committed suicide inside its unlit room. The gods obliged and the cycle did his bidding.


“They have left for Kaavu,” his aunt told him as she closed the chicken coop’s door for the night. She affectionately patted the disappointed boy on his head. Manu always wanted to hang out with his elder brothers, whom he placed among the world’s greatest. Though his auntsympathised with the boy, she forbade him from heading to Kaavu; the night had fallen and the path to the temple meandered through deserted areas.

Manu sat on the thick waist-high walls enclosing the verandah and set his gaze at the kazhala (a type ofcrude wooden gates); a rusting iron lantern hung from the roof, creaking to the wind. On the wall hung a framed and the only surviving photograph of his long-dead grandfather, who fled Singapore during World War II and settled in this village in Kerala’s hinterland sixty years before. In the dull yellow light of the lantern, his gaunt figure stood out. “How was achachan, ammayi?” Manu asked his aunt, not taking his eyes off the picture.

“A good vaidyan (Ayurvedic physician), my child. An erudite extremely kind to his patients,” his aunt replied as she sat on a large wooden bench next to the window to the granary and combed her long graying hair. “The room in the attic was his. It was locked on the day he died 45 years ago; nobody has entered that room since,” she said. After a brief pause, she added: “Tomorrow is his death anniversary.”

The wind was gathering strength. Its howling as it passed through the bamboo grove on the property’s northern border mixed with the hooting of owls on the stocky tamarind tree in the courtyard. Manu looked at the portrait again; he shuddered at the shadows cast by the swinging lantern.


The boy waited for his brothers’ return until 10 pm. “They might stay to watch paavakoothu (puppet show); they won’t return before dawn. Off you go to your bed now, child. It’s late,” the aunt told him. After casting one last look at the kazhala, Manu reluctantly headed to the room where his bed had been prepared on the floor.

“What did achachan do in Singapore, ammayi?” Manu asked as he pulled the blanket over himself. “Nobody knows, child. He never spoke about his life there. One night, when he was down with fever, he started speaking in a language nobody understood. In that delirious doggerel, only one word was Malayalam – Chekuthaan (Devil),” his aunt said. She suddenly stopped talking and told him to go to sleep.

At half past 11, Manu woke up. He had sweat profusely and was thirsty. He increased the flame of the lantern and poured himself a glass of water from the vessel by the doorframe.   

He looked at his aunt who was fast asleep on a cot nearby. He waited for a few minutes, listening to her steady snoring, before slipping his small hand under her pillow. He fished out a bundle of keys bound by a cotton thread. Among those keys, he knew, would be the key to his grandfather’s room in the attic. He tip-toed into the hall and closed the room’s door behind him.

The old wooden planks groaned when he started climbing the stairs. He stopped every two steps to listen to any sound from his aunt’s room. After what seemed an hour, he turned and looked down. Staring back at him was an abyss of darkness. He strained to see the shining floor, but in vain. The lantern in his right hand threw his shadow on the wall in sharp relief.


He jumped when a rat ran over his feet as he stepped onto the first floor. He raised the lantern and walked towards the far end of the corridor, flanked by a row of three rooms to the right and a wall with a single window to the left. At the end of the corridor a second flight of stairs loomed into view. This one was so steep that Manu contemplated abandoning his adventure and returning to bed. He, however, wanted to be the first to enter that room. He wanted to show his brothers that he was brave and worthy enough to be in their company. Swallowing hard, he took the first step and then the second, determined not to look down before he reached the end of the stairs.


When he inserted the seventh key of the bundle into the rusting lock of the massive double-doors, he knew it was the right one. There was a little vibration; something akin to a shock. He pulled it out and peeped through the hole — darkness, nothing was visible.

Just as he pulled away, however, the corner of his eyes caught something, something that looked like a set of teeth—long, white, and glowing. “Did you hear a whisper?” a voice inside his head asked. He pressed his ear onto the keyhole and closed his eyes, trying to block out the sound of raindrops pummeling the roof tiles.

Manu’s eyes opened wide when he, Instead of a sound, felt a wet, slippery thing shooting into his ear. He jerked his head away and pushed his little finger into his ear, trying to remove whatever that might have entered his ear.

Even as a shiver of disgust and terror ran down his spine, Manu, for some inexplicable reason, reinserted the key back into the keyhole. As he turned it, his grip on the metal-wire hold of the lantern tightened; drops from his sweating palms fell on the hot glass, making hissing sounds as they boiled and turned into steam. Pushing open the thick doors was difficult for the little boy, but he managed to make just enough gap to squeeze through.


Manu felt a knot in his throat as he entered the room, which seemed to be devoid any breathable air. As his eyes and lungs got adjusted to the strange interior, he beheld a neatly arranged room. To the right lay a bed with a moth-eaten cotton mattress. By the foot of the bed were a large table and a chair. To the left was a rack, holding several glass jars with things he did not have names for. He placed the lantern on the table that had five tomes on it. A thick layer of dust had become part of their black hard cover, making invisible whatever that might have been written on them. Most of the books were in a language that Manu thought was Mandarin, for they looked a lot like the letters on the bottles of Tiger Balm that his father frequently used.

Manu was admiring the various items of stationery on the table when the sound of something scratching on rusting iron made him snap his head to the right. His eyes fell on a large iron chest below the wooden racks; strong brass bas-reliefs adorned its lid. He knelt before it and felt for a keyhole along its sides, but in vain.  There was a simple latch, which Manu swiftly undid. The lid was heavy. It took Manu both his hand and his legs to pull it open.

The inside of the chest was lined with blood-red silk. At the very centre lay a black earthen pot with Chinese characters written all over it. Its mouth was bound by what appeared to be leather. The leather piece was fastened to the pot with coils of copper wire wound on its neck. Manu lifted it and shook it close to his ear. Some liquid splashed inside.


When Manu started removing the copper coils, he heard an almost frenzied howl that seemed to come from just outside the house. What animal made that howl Manu did not know. Even as he looked up, his hands mechanically removed the coil one after the other. The howls grew in intensity, often interrupted by snapping of jaws. Instead of terrifying him, Manu found them annoying. He hissed: “STOP”. That he did not sound like himself at all was a thought that died a quick death in his mind frothing with manic frenzy. Manu worked automatically, his mind fixated on opening the pot. Coils of copper piled up by his feet.

When the last of the copper coil came undone, a grin spread across the boy’s face. He lifted the pot from the casket and placed it on his lap. Grinning like a mad man, the boy pulled the leather cover from its mouth and flung it away. An ecstasy washed over the boy’s body as he gazed into the dark depths of the pot. In an oily black liquid, Manu first thought he saw his reflection. He then lifted the lantern and held it close to the pot’s mouth.

His eyes came bulging out of their sockets as he saw what he saw. He saw it clearly, perfectly, in all its apocalyptic terror. Manu felt his heart in his mouth, his gut getting twisted into a knot, and smelt the stench of his own feces. Every muscle on his face twitched and stretched on its own as his dying brain snapped its control over them.

Involuntarily, the boy’s hands lifted the pot and started pressing its mouth against his face, his hands trembling with exertion. His body writhed as his hands continued to push the pot against his face, as if they wanted his head inside it. Blood spurted forth from where the sharp edges of the pot dug into his young flesh, like a butcher knife cutting the throat of a calf. Manu’s screams in agony were swallowed by the murky depths of that insidious receptacle.


When the skull broke and brain matter splattered across the pot’s surface, it was 12.05 am.

Their 80-year-old neighbor, Paryayani, who lay wide awake inside her little hut, saw through the window next to her bed, the form of a child walking (or was it jumping?) towards the bamboo grove where the dead of the family had been buried. Her heart exploded when, in the ephemeral brilliance of a lightning, she saw what that naked creature had for a head.


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