The small bus shot through the country road, kicking up miniature whirlwinds of dust and dry leaves. On either side stretched paddy fields that seemed to have no end. Afar, along the horizon, the shape of a mountain range loomed into view; a spectre lurking behind a veil of the hazy morning air. 

Dhivakar kept turning his head to either side, his wide eyes trying to lap up as much scenery as possible. He tried to wake his seven-year-old younger brother but then decided against it. Sudhakar was fast asleep, his head resting against his brother’s shoulders. Small black splotches formed on his blue shirt where his drool fell.

At the age of 11, Dhivakar took great pride in his stature as big brother and it rose a notch higher when he was tasked with taking care of his little brother during their ‘sojourn’ with their uncle, who lived 55 miles away in a remote village in central Kerala and whom they had never met before. Before long, Dhivakar caught the bus conductor nodding at him — his stop was the next. A bell rang and the bus slowed to a halt; they are finally there.

Dhivakar looked at the bus as it sped away, leaving them at a rickety bus-waiting shed with its red tin roof and four wooden poles. The boys soon spotted a man studying them from one of its corners. He was a handsome man with a long face covered in deep lines, a broad forehead and a strong jaw, tell-tale signs of an extremely hard life he, their maternal uncle, lived as a farmer and the caretaker of the family home. As he gestured the boys to follow him, he scratched his chin, which had a week’s growth of white beard on it.

Through the dusty road they followed the old man. Sudhakar picked up small stones and flung them into the thickets as he walked and, often, broke into a playful run, much to the annoyance of the man. Both his uncle and his younger brother stopped several times during that walk so that Dhivakar could catch up. As he rushed to join them, the aluminium tiffin boxes inside his cloth school bag made a rhythmic clang, announcing the limp on his right leg.

His mother’s family home had been built on the slope of a hillock. It perched precariously on a strip of flat ground cut onto the hill’s southern flank over a century ago. It was said they were the first family to settle on that hillock, the stubble of what might once have been a mighty mountain, one older than the peaks of the Western Ghats 50 miles further east. The government used it to grow eucalyptus trees to feed a paper factory a few miles up north.

The climb to the house was particularly demanding for Dhivakar. When he stopped to catch his breath twice, he looked jealously at the two figures effortlessly scaling the slope. Sudhakar was gleefully jumping on a flat rock and daring his big brother to catch him, knowing fully well he could not.


Dhivakar put his bag on the wooden bed in the room, located at the end of a long veranda. He stared at the bed for a moment, before sitting on it. Sudhakar was already unlocking the latches of the only window in the room. Light poured in as he pushed open the wooden panels. He put his face between two worn wooden bars and peered into the cattle shed the window overlooked. He chuckled as his eyes presented him the form of a cow moving in the darkness. To the right of the shed, rose the shrine of Muthappan, the lord protector of the family. Cobwebs hung from its tiled roof.

Old timers in the family had told Dhivakar much about this entity, which had protected the family from evil spirits, from whose possession they had wrested control of the land. When the first child of the family was born, he had heard, one of the spirits visited the house in the dead of night. It wanted to gorge on the baby; it said it was its right, its payment. As the couple and the midwife shuddered in mortal terror inside the house, they heard a war of words outside: Between a stubborn one and a reasonable one, the latter being the voice of the lord protector. At the end of that war, waged in ancient Tamil, a deal was struck – the spirit will not get the baby, but will get the marupilla (placenta).

When the midwife took the placenta to the rear of the shrine and placed it on a freshly cut plantain leaf, she felt hot breath on her nape and the sound of a maw opening, thick with an indescribable liquid. As she circled the shrine and walked back into the house, she guarded her only protection, the weak flame of a beeswax candle, with trembling hands. That night, one without the moon, stars, or wind, the creature fed, its vulgar curses drowning in the hoots of a thousand owls.


The boys quickly accustomed themselves to the nitty-gritty of country life, helping their uncle, who worked his one-and-a-half acre farmland from dawn to dusk, any way possible. The cow, a heavily pregnant heifer, became their responsibility. They would lead it uphill and tether it on a patch of grassland. In the afternoon, they would water and tether it in another location with adequate shade. Dhivakar also cooked food for the three of them; milked the goat; and delivered it to a few house a couple of miles away, along with his kid brother.

It was on such a day that the brothers came across a couple of men in white shirts and boot-cut pants talking excitedly about some find they had made uphill. Sudhakar stared at them for a moment as they walked past. In the next instant, before Dhivakar could stop him, he picked up a stone and hurled it at a burly man donning a gold-rimmed sunglass and a prominent potbelly. No sooner had the stone landed on the man than Sudhakar bolted. And the man’s eyes fell on the diminutive 11-year-old carrying a stainless steel container.

It was good that he was an old man. Dhivakar doubted he, with his limp and the container, could have outrun him had he been younger. “Ettan, pedithoori (chicken-heart),” Sudhakar laughed as the duo reached the farmland.

The boys sat on their haunches as their uncle had his lunch. “We saw men in pants and shirts, maama. Who are they,” Dhivakar asked him. His uncle did not take his eyes off the plate, and after a few seconds of silence, he said: “From archaeology department, boy. They found something on the other side of the hill, remains of a settlement… something like that.”

News spread trickled in slowly in that village, but there indeed was a find. It, however, was no settlement. What they found was something inexplicable. Huge megalithic underground chambers shaped like elongated earthen jars and filled with bones – of both men and beasts. The bones bore signs of violence; deep cuts hinted at their having been inside a monstrous, teethed jaw: of what, they did not know. The neck of the chamber extended up to the surface; someone must have once covered its mouth at the surface. Surrounding each such chamber were smaller urns, each carrying the remains of human corpses – mutilated and mangled.

The boys had the evenings to themselves; these, they used to explore the hillock towering over the house. That day, when the boys were bringing the cow back from the hill, something in the thickets spooked it, making it break into a frantic run. The boys followed it, yelling after it to stop. As usual, Sudhakar was far ahead of Dhivakar and it was he who hollered to him the location of the animal. Limping and cursing, Dhivakar waded through the thickets, tracing the source of his brother’s voice.

Sudhakar was standing in the middle of a circular clearing. There was something strange about it; it did not look manmade. The cow was standing near Sudhakar, chewing dry grass and staring blankly into the thickets. The younger boy had a strange smile on his face. He pointed his finger at a large polished sandstone protruding from the earth beneath a palm tree.

With the long thin stick still clenched in his right hand, Dhivakar walked towards it. The palm swayed in the air, making its shadow move across the stone. Along the length of is conical shape ran three deep lines that joined together on the blunt top. “Touch it,” came a voice from inches behind Dhivakar, startling him. He turned to see his brother grinning at him. “Touch it to see how smooth it is,” the boy insisted. “Uncle showed me this the other day. He told me that those people from the other side of the hill used to visit this place at night; they worshipped it. Let us pretend to be them; let’s turn it into a temple. You can be the priest.” Dhivakar stared at his younger brother. Something inside him stirred and told him to move away. As he hurriedly put some distance between him and the stone, Dhivakar swore he would never visit that place again.


The brothers sat cross-legged on the narrow sidewalls of the veranda. Their uncle, in an easy-chair nearby, smoked a beedi, staring blankly at the roof. Sudhakar was holding small insects to the flame of a kerosene lamp, jerking his hand away when, flickering in a wandering breeze, the flame licked the tips of his fingers.

It was the time of the fireflies, and, in that pitch black night, theirs were the only source of light outside; they flaunted it as if knowingly. Sudhakar caught one flying by him in one sweeping motion of his left hand. As he inspected the bug writhing between his fingers, the boy asked nonchalantly, “When did Muthappan leave this hill, maama?”

The old man did not move for a moment, swirls of smoke hung around his head, veiling his expression. “I don’t have the money to buy him toddy and meat anymore. Besides, we don’t need Muthappan anymore; pathalaboothangal (underground demons) left this place a long time ago.” He pulled on the beedi for the last puff and flung the butt across the veranda. Dhivakar stared at it as it hit the ground, scattered its ember, and then died. Rising, he walked into that thick dark blanket of a night, cut only by the streaks of green emitted by fireflies. “What if we catch a lot of them and put them into a glass bottle, one of those brandy bottles in the kitchen maybe?” He could then place the bottle in the room, he thought.

Dhivakar turned to spring the idea on this brother. But as he did so, that excited smile on his face fell dead. His little brother was staring at something, his mouth stretched into an insidious grin, his fingers clawing at the wooden pillar. As he followed his brother’s eyes, Dhivakar, too, saw it. On the cliff overlooking the house stood a form darker than the night, fireflies in their hundreds swarming it in a sort of frantic dance before dropping dead suddenly. Though his mind let out scream as he beheld that rain of fire, no word came out of his mouth.


What he saw that terrible night, Dhivakar did not know. He was unable to remember that apparition when he lay shivering in his room for the next three days. His brain was trying to break down that terrible memory into something his mind can bear and then burry deep in the recesses of his consciousness, never to be summoned again.


In the days that followed that night of horror, Dhivakar saw less and less of his brother, who was, for some reason seemed to shrink in size. His trousers had to be kept in place with a length of coir. Dark circles formed around his sunken eyes and his teeth and nails turned yellow and, at times, bloody. Dhivakar was slowly growing fearful of his brother’s proximity. He avoided him whenever he approached him to rant on what he did during the day, half of which he could not understand — the boy seemed to be speaking in an alien language.

It was also during these days that the pilfering started. Hens and lambs were getting stolen. That there was no destruction to the pen and the coop indicated that this was being perpetrated by a person. Dhivakar heard his uncle mutter curses whenever he passed by two boys in the house. Dhivakar grieved at this obvious hostility meted out at them. The old man stopped looking Dhivakar in the eye. He would just mutter the day’s chores to him every morning before heading to the field. The boy was so desperate to win his uncle’s affection back that he worked harder. He wanted to prove that his brother and he were grateful for the food and shelter provided; he knew they could not return home.


It was on a Sunday evening that the cow started showing signs of distress. It kept mooing and moving around. Dhivakar, who was counting his coins, heard his uncle’s crackling voice, “Light the lantern and bring it to the cattle shed, boy. It’s going to be a long night.”

The lantern hung from a crossbar on the shed’s roof, gently swaying to an occasional breeze. Dhivakar sat on the mud bund near the trough, watching his uncle caress the heifer on its bulging belly and mutter soothing words to it. He felt better to see the man in a kinder version. Then, a shuffling sound made him turn his head — Sudhakar was watching the two of them through the room’s window. The younger boy looked away when he saw his big brother watching him. Guilt gripped Dhivakar’s heart. After all, their father had told him to take care of Sudhakar before he left for his final voyage to the islands two years ago. He felt he was failing his father, his beloved father.

The stench of fresh dung pierced his nostrils, bringing him back to the calving. “The head is out,” he heard his uncle say. Dhivakar rose and walked into the shed and stood a few feet behind his uncle, craning his neck to see the calf making its way into the world. He saw its eyes, dark and bulging, and tongue hanging limply from its mouth. Strangely, no membrane covered that head.

From above the hill, Dhivakar heard the roar of an approaching rain, he braced for its descend on the tin sheets overhead. Momentarily, the entire place was flooded by the silvery glow of lightning; the sky rumbled and belched forth a tremendous thunderclap a few moments later, starting the boy.  

Dhivakar felt something touch his toe, something wet, warm, and sticky. He looked down, taking a second too many to do so, as if he subconsciously expected something ominous to happen. More than horror, it was grief that hit him hard when he beheld what lay at his feet. Lying motionless at his feet was the brutally severed head of a calf, terror frozen in the depth of its dark eyes. He let out a gasp and looked at his uncle, trying to comprehend what was happening. Instead of the solemn face he expected to see, Dhivakar saw a man shattered; his mouth gaping open, showing his four remaining teeth. 

Even as the first drops of that unsolicited rain hit the sheets, he heard the cow let out an agonising cry before giving a final push to get herself rid of a dark, glistening mass hanging from its vulva. Dhivakar clasped his ears with his hands when it fell onto the floor with a sickening splash; the stench of decaying leaves filled the air with the membrane that held that mass together broke, spewing thick, white maggots all over the floor. With a loud cry, the cow heaved back and forth for a moment before collapsing sideways, its last breath exiting its body in a long gurgle.

Chest heaving, Dhivakar looked at his uncle, desperately groping for his hand, for a sliver of safety, for the end of a rope to hang on to. His young heart could no longer bear such terror, such punishment. He beheld, however, with dwindling hope, his uncle sinking to his haunches, hands clasped behind his head and letting out a shriek. When he turned to him, his mouth was stretched in an ugly snarl and he spat, “You evil brat. You brought this upon me. You pilfering scum, you want to destroy me, just as you destroyed your family? Those parents of yours…. they should have given you to ‘IT’ and let ‘IT’ feed on you, but your mother was stupid,” he stopped abruptly. Dhivakar, wide-eyed, shuddered at every word that the man spat out, tears rolling down his cheeks. “Good that she has gone mad,” the old man uttered a moment later, not meeting the boy’s pleading eyes.


Dhivakar ran. Caring neither direction nor the pain from his right leg, he ran – into the storm, into the howling wind. His little frame was quickly engulfed by the coppice separating the hill from the farmstead. Fat raindrops hammered his body as if they were needles hungry for a taste of his flesh. Panting hysterically, he waded through the bushes even as aboriginal plants licked the skin off his bare legs and hands. As he clambered over a large boulder on his path uphill, he dared to look over his shoulder at the farmstead. Down below, through the sheet of rain, he could make out the form of his uncle silhouetted against the yellow light from the cattle shed.

As he shot through the thickets, he saw glowing eyes staring at him from behind trees and undergrowth. He did not know for how long he ran or to which direction. In an instant, he blasted into a clearing and the sudden change in the surroundings made him stop. When a bolt of lightning split the sky, illuminating the entire hill, Dhivakar realised he was in the same clearing from which he ran away weeks ago, swearing not to come back again.

Even as he backed off, trying to find another way to the other side of the hill, his eyes caught something strange — something glowing, something breathing. There, a heap of embers, or so that innocent mind believed. Without he himself realising it, Dhivakar walked towards that light, the only source of light.


It was that cone-shaped protrusion that his brother had urged him to touch. Crawling over its surface in a thick layer were fireflies glowing red. The frequency of their glow was so synchronized that they appeared a single organism. He thought that rhythmic glow was akin to a monster’s breathing.

Panting and bleeding from cuts all over his body, Dhivakar stood hardly twenty paces away from the monolith. He shrieked, when he saw a form crawling out from the rear of the stone. He froze when he, in the flash of a lightning, realised that the bony and diminutive figure, moving awkwardly on all fours, was no animal but his own young brother or what remained or became of him. Without looking at the visitor in its lair, the thing climbed the glowing monolith like a lizard and positioned itself on its top. Its naked body was ravaged by deep and decaying wounds. As he watched in mounting terror, it stuck its neck out like a turtle reappearing from its shell. Its whole body convulsed when it retched and then started regurgitating. Rolls and rolls of a purple mass spewed out.

“I ate the calf, but the old fool will get YOU for it,” it crooned and sniggered. “I ate the lambs; I ate the fowls; I killed the cat; and I ate the crop, but the old fool is going get YOU, limping boy,” it droned in an ugly parody of a lullaby he had heard his mother sing. It sniggered again and again.

It was in that instant that Dhivakar’s mind finally caved in. Memories flooded his mind, memories that his brain had so expertly buried in his subconscious. He remembered a snigger he had heard when his mad mother dragged him from under the bed, the wooden handle of an axe in her hand. “I didn’t kill the dog, I didn’t. Please! Please!” Dhivakar had cried even as she brought the handle down hard on the nine-year-old’s ankle, crushing it, maiming her firstborn for life.

Dhivakar remembered that ‘snigger’ when their relatives dragged their raving mother away to an asylum; he remembered hearing that ‘snigger’ when his father bid goodbye for the last time; he remembered that ‘snigger’ when he was brutally beaten up at school for ‘limping’.  Dhivakar remembered everything and realised that the ‘curse’ his family bore had been with him all along – a walking, speaking curse. The bile of anger rose from his guts, blinding him. Around him, the palm trees swayed in the howling wind as if egging him on to do the unthinkable; the monolith glowed more intensely, flooding the entire clearing with a pulsing red luminescence.


It swayed back and forth when the first stone Dhivakar threw hit it on its head. Blood spurted forth when another hit it in its eye. And when Dhivakar sat on its chest and battered its head with a blunt stone, it uttered no sound. As the boy — his eyes bloodshot, his brain a hornet’s nest — was bludgeoning his kid brother’s head to a pulp, he felt a hot breath on his nape. In his ears, Dhivakar heard his own heavy breathing and the whistling, gurgling sound the last breaths of his dying brother made through his crushed skull.

Back at the farmstead, the limp body of an old man hung from the roof of the veranda. It swayed to a wind whispering curses.

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