This is the first of the stories from some of the wonderful authors who came to our Mumbai Duckbill Workshop. Our thanks to Irene for allowing us to use this.
‘Don’t wander too far,’ Ma called out. The cat hadn’t obviously heard Ma for she wandered beyond the garden, past the gardener’s shed and through a gap in the wall that ran around the guest house. Maya wondered briefly if Ma would consider this too far but there was something mesmerizing about the feline walk that made her follow.
Suddenly, she stumbled on a stone and almost fell. No, it wasn’t a stone actually. Maya was absolutely terrified to realize that she was in the midst of old tombstones in an unkempt graveyard. Worst still, she could no longer see the cat.
‘Kitty kitty kitty,’ she called. There was no kitty and in fact she couldn’t see or hear any cats or humans. It was so quiet that it felt positively creepy. Maya turned around and headed back with brisk, slightly scared steps.
That’s when she saw the blue stone. It was a beautiful blend of aquamarine and grey and absolutely the most beautiful stone she had seen in the ten years of her life. She had to stop to pick it up. Pocketing the stone, Maya continued her walk.
Ma had meanwhile managed to drag Dad away from the laptop and they all headed to the market. Maya hated these expeditions to the market because her parents and she never agreed upon anything she wanted to buy. Today’s expedition was with a purpose. Ma was looking for a curio shop that used to be in the upper market when she was a college student in Shillong many years ago.
They found the curio shop and Maya thought it was rather sinister and dark inside. Ma got busy admiring some masks which Dad considered too macabre to buy, let alone put up at home. ‘Preeti, what is this increasing obsession with morbid stuff!’ Dad kidded. Ma laughed happily as she did when Dad teased her but Maya thought she saw a strange glint in her eye as she turned to her and asked her if she fancied the cat.
Maya hadn’t seen the cat though it must have been there all the while. Its body almost merged with the shadows in the shelf but the eyes glowed. One blue and one grey. ‘Ma, that’s just like the cat in the guest house! Can I please have it?’
They left the curio shop with only the cat, now wrapped in brown paper and tucked under Maya’s arm. Her parents hadn’t been able to agree about the masks and they went to Ling Ming’s for an awesome lunch. Everyone talked about how Chinese food in Shillong tasted so much better than back home in Mumbai. Or rather, Ma and Dad talked about it and Maya contributed by agreeing.
Back in the guest house, Ma and Dad did what they did without fail during holidays. They dozed off and since Maya saw no point in wasting a holiday afternoon in sleep, she decided to open her package. The guest house accommodation was rather nice and not only was there a living area but a tiny dressing room which had been converted into a bedroom for a child.
Maya took the cat out of the wrapping and looked at it closely. It looked remarkably like the cat she’d seen this morning except that it was made of cold metal. Perhaps Shillong cats had this unique feature and had each eye a different colour? She suddenly got an uncomfortable feeling that she was being watched. She looked over her shoulder. There was no one there, no one in the room except for the metal cat. ‘Kitty kitty kitty,’ she said, and feeling for the stone in her pocket, she took it out. The stone looked so much like an eye, she thought, as she held it close to take a good look.
As Maya examined the blue stone, she thought she heard something, a cat’s meow perhaps. Someone watching her? God, why was she getting such spooky thoughts? She shut her eyes, trying to shut out frightening thoughts and making up her mind to tell Dad not to stay in old guest houses near graveyards. Her eyes began to hurt her now, hurt her in a terrible way that made her feel that everything was going round and round, and she fainted.
When she came to, it was evening. The metal cat was looking at her benignly but she just couldn’t find her stone. Her eyes still hurt somewhat and she felt a dull pain in her head. She tried playing a few matches of fruit ninja with her Dad but it wasn’t much fun as he was too easy to beat. Plus her eyes hurt, so she decided to sleep early. It was while brushing her teeth that she noticed that one of her eyes was blue. She shut her eyes and opened them again. The right one was definitely blue. She shut the right one and looked at her reflection with only the left one. Everything looked the same as ever. It was when she shut her left eye and tried looking with only the right one that everything went all wrong. She didn’t see her own reflection but saw a strange woman with a bloodied face trying to speak to her. She shut her eyes and slowly opened the right one again. There were many bloodied faces now, all trying to say something to her and she couldn’t hear them. And then she saw her own face with the other faces.
Maya screamed and ran out to where her parents were. ‘Ma, Dad, my right eye has gone blue like the cat’s,’ she shouted, trembling.
‘Nonsense,’ said Ma.
Dad endorsed her, forgetting that he was colour-blind. ‘Tell us what happened,’ he added, seeing that Maya was actually scared.
‘Nothing,’ she said, feeling a bit foolish now.
‘You can sleep in our room if you’re scared,’ said Dad. ‘Just for tonight.’
Maya wouldn’t admit it but she was feeling too jittery to sleep till her parents also came to bed. With sleep came strange dreams about people rising from graves, and they all had one blue eye. She was standing near the graves and they came towards her, their blue eyes glowing. They held out their hands, asking her to join them.
Maya woke up with a start. She knew she was not in her bed. She dared not guess where she was but the air was cold, the night dark. She did not move, for she was afraid of waking up the dead. Slowly she felt a gaze upon her back.
‘Ma,’ she smiled in relief. Her Ma smiled back.
That is when Maya noticed that her mother had one blue eye. As her mother stretched her hand out to Maya, she ran. Ran as fast as her two little legs could carry her, stumbling and falling but getting up again. It was dark and she couldn’t really see where she was going but she hoped she was going towards the guest house.
She saw a light now. The watchman sitting outside looked surprised.
‘What happened, baby?’
He smiled and as Maya ran past him, she noticed that he too had one blue eye.
She rushed into the bedroom and shook her Dad. ‘Daddy, Ma’s not Ma. Daddy, Daddy!’ She shook him but her father never moved. And then she knew that the woman was in the room. ‘You are not my mother,’ she said to the woman with one blue eye.
‘Whatever gave you the idea?’ Ma said.
‘But Ma,’ said the little girl.
‘Sshh,’ said the woman, ‘come to me, my little girl. You will now become one of us.’ She held Maya close to her as she snuffed out the little life, gently laying her beside her Dad afterwards.
Before she left the room, she plucked out Maya’s blue eye.