*Kattadiya - exorcist/ witch doctor/ demon expert
Francis thought her bladder would burst; walking the extra one hundred yards to the outdoor lavatory was out of the question. The zinnia patch, adjacent to the patio would have to suffice. It was nearly 9 P.M. and pitch-black outside; no one would see.
Grabbing the battered silver torch, left near the back door, she stepped out on to the patio. The sweet perfume of jasmine wafted through the warm evening air. Breathing in the calming fragrance, Francis moved the dim flashlight up and down to orientate herself in the dark. Almost immediately, various insects, drawn by the faint light, swarmed the rim of the torch as she held it out in front. Once she’d located the zinnias, Francis moved towards them with purpose. Shaking the flashlight free of the insects, she wedged it into the nook of her right armpit and hitched up her powder-blue housecoat. Then, hurriedly pulled down her underpants and crouched low amongst the flowers.
A gurgling sound echoed out from the kitchen. Francis pictured their servant, Rani, pouring water into the large white aluminium basin from the takaran pail. This was done with a dramatic flourish—the bucket held high above the basin until all its contents flowed out. Whenever the kitchen pail was empty, Rani waddled down to the well at the bottom of the garden to draw up another bucket. Then she retreated to the kitchen with the fresh water swishing around in the pail. Invariably a quarter of it spilled out on to the garden path, as the bucket swayed back and forth along with the slow, undulating motion of Rani's duckwalk.
"They must have finished dinner if the basin is being filled to wash dishes,” Francis thought out loud. That meant it would be time to read a story to the children. But she didn't want to go inside, not yet.
Francis reluctantly negotiated with herself: “I’ll go inside once I’ve counted one hundred and eighty-five stars.” Gazing upwards she started counting, with a plan to sweep across the night sky, from left to right. She’d reached twenty-seven, when a sudden rustling in the thick hibiscus hedge behind the zinnia plot distracted her tallying. Still squatting, with her underwear suspended around her ankles, Francis cautiously maneuvered herself, turning towards the sound.
The large jet-black dog from three days ago loomed out. The light from the torch, muted by her armpit, eerily elongated the dog’s silhouette. The last time she had seen the animal it had been further away; today, however, it was, much closer, seated almost beside Francis. Snarling at her, the creature revealed a row of jagged ivory teeth. Its steady panting punctuated, now and then, with a guttural growl. Most startling to Francis was the viscous, opaque saliva, slowly dripping out of its gaping mouth and over its blood-red tongue. Mesmerised by the drool, she couldn’t move.
"Fran, are you out there? Are you ok?" came Bernard’s voice urgently from behind the patio door. Francis swiftly turned off the torchlight.
The shock of seeing the creature again registered with her body. Goosebumps erupted, in rapid succession, along her arms and up the back of her neck. The tight grip she had on her clothing eased off as her hands became clammy and weak.
“Francis!” Bernard’s voice boomed.
A hinge squeaked, and the hollow thud of ply-wood reverberated as the patio fly-screen door swung back, hard. Francis didn't respond to Bernard or move. The dog didn’t flinch. Even in the dark, she could make out its distinctive eyes, pale yellow irises glowing, pupils dilated, boring into her.
Francis held her left index finger up to her lips as she gestured for the creature to remain quiet; it seemed to understand. Adjusting her thick black-rimmed spectacles, which had fallen halfway down her nose, she scrutinised the dog. There was a rhythm to its panting. The drooling was in time with the intermittent low growls, which was when the saliva oozed out of the creature’s mouth and down onto the zinnias. Still squatting, Francis gingerly extended her finger out and poked the animal near its ribs. Expecting to touch coarse fur, stretched taut over sinewy muscle, she was confused when there was a void under her fingertip—yet the dog hadn’t even moved. Gingerly, she ventured out her entire left hand, palm cupped, ready to pat the animal. Again, she felt nothing; her hand passed seamlessly through the black form. Perplexed, Francis held the hand up to her nose and breathed in slowly, several times. There was no hint of a musky dog smell. Only the faint astringency of the Bombay onions she’d chopped for her omelette remained on her hand. The strain of squatting burnt her thighs, but she was too transfixed by the animal to change her position.
Mosquitos, aware of an easy target, were landing on Francis's ankles, face and forearms. High-pitched buzzing closed in on her as they jabbed, repeatedly. Swatting with her left hand was not an option; it had to be kept unfettered. Neither could she use her right hand which was bunching up her clothing. And, she definitely didn’t want to return to the house. So, with her underpants still dangling, Francis started rocking, gently, back and forth on her haunches and shaking her head from side to side, hoping that the motion would deter them.
"Francis, are you out there searching for that bloody black dog, again?" She heard her husband yell out, louder. "You know, you are seeing things, just like the other day. There is NO black dog! We would have ALL seen it by now if it actually existed." Continuing to squat and sway, Francis dipped her head down and listened to Bernard, without saying a word.
"Fran, please think of the children. They’re petrified with all this nonsense of a black dog. Shanthi is hiding in her room. She ran there the moment she saw you float outside in your housecoat, like a bloody cloud. The poor child told me that the black dog was going to take you away; I can’t even find Maithri. Please don't talk about that wretch of a dog when you come back inside." Bernard pleaded this time.
"Francis? Can you hear me? What the hell is wrong with you? Why won't you answer?" he hollered out. His anger was palpable now through the night air. It reached her like a spiked punch to the face, catching her off-guard. Francis winced, tears welling in her eyes.
The characteristic evening chirp of the crickets echoed in the garden. Shifting her attention away from Bernard's reprimanding, Francis focused on the insects instead. Imagining dozens of little crickets all around her, rubbing their wings, each a miniature violin, she swayed to their harmony.
"You recall what the Kattadiya said to us yesterday, don't you? An infection has set in your brain which is causing your mind to gallivant all over the place. That black yakka is just inside your head. It’s not real. I swear, if the Kattadiya’s ruddy medicine doesn't work soon, I'm going to admit you to the Angoda Sanatorium tomorrow morning. I don't care what Violet, or even your whole bloody jingbang family, says about the state of that place. I honestly don't know what to do with you anymore. Have you been taking that bugger's medicine? Answer me Francis! Have you? Rani said the bottle is almost half-empty.”
"Kattadiya!" she spat out the word, as she conjured up the charlatan's vile image. How Francis despised that skinny katussa, with his oily slicked-back hair, shaggy brows and teeth stained crimson from chewing betel nut. Despite a rotund belly, protruding over his urine stained sarong, he still needed a thick leather belt to hold up the dirty garment.
The black dog was still seated adjacent to Francis. “Must be because of his small mango-shaped bottom,” she sniggered out loud to the animal. The creature observed Francis, intently, as if it could picture her thoughts. She returned the gaze. “You know, the fellow’s arms stuck out like blackened matchsticks from his filthy banyan, and his ugly feet were bare. The man didn’t even have slippers on. Disgusting really, considering he must walk around in all manner of places.”
It had been her sister Violet's idea to consult the local Kattadiya. Violet, her older sister, believed in all that hocus-pocus, and she’d convinced Bernard to urgently summon the idiot to avoid a family calamity. “What harm could there possibly be?” she’d overheard Violet whisper to Bernard. “It’s better than admitting her to Angoda. That place is for actual pissas. My sister is not that crazy.”
The Kattadiya had arrived on a bullock cart, which he left near the zinnias. Francis had watched from behind the patio fly-screen door as the bull munched on an assortment of flowers and defecated at the same time. Francis hadn’t been called outside to join the trio; the man spoke in hushed tones to Violet and Bernard. Occasionally, brows furrowed, all three of them glanced up at her.
After slurping a condensed-milk-tea, and crunching a ginger-nut biscuit, he’d cocooned himself and Francis away in the master bedroom. Once closeted off, separated from her family, the Kattadiya had pulled down Francis’s sari-pallu and shoved his calloused, cold hands under her hatte and all over her bare breasts; pinching her nipples hard between his fingers.
“Actually, I know your problem, so well,” he’d hissed as his lips brushed against her right ear and the tip of his tongue flickered out. The Kattadiya's breath was rancid from the combination of betel nut and milk tea.
Afterwards, he unlocked the bedroom door and announced to the waiting family that a brain infection was the cause of Francis's apparitions. “The Nona’s mind is wandering all over the place. But don’t worry, I can fix it. I will need a few private visitations with Madam Francis.” Puffing up his puny chest, he assured them that his uniquely prepared tonic and the accompanying mantram, which Francis had to recite, would cure her.
“Of course, one hundred percent. Guaranteed,” the Kattadiya declared, swaying his head rhythmically from side to side, as he pulled out a dark green glass bottle from his cadjan basket. He gave the bottle a theatrical shake in the air, before solemnly handing it to Bernard and repeating, “Make sure Madam drinks this five times a day and chants the mantram at least ten times per day. I will come back in two days time to check on everything.”
By the time Francis looked up again, the dog had vanished, without a sound. She was accustomed to its presence and felt as if an intrinsic part of her was missing. Left in its wake was a silvery trail of dense ectoplasm, long and luminous in the velvet darkness. “Ah, ah! Thank God! The saliva!" she murmured triumphantly under her breath, reaching over to scoop a bit of it up with her left index finger. Francis was relieved when she felt a wet, slimy globule on her finger. Raising the saliva up to her nose she sniffed, deeply, but still couldn't detect any smell.
Impatient to return to the house, she pulled up her underpants with her other hand and rushed towards the patio, holding her left finger out in front of her. Like the creature, her eyes were adapted to the blanket of darkness. In her haste, Francis forgot about the flashlight hidden in her armpit and dropped it. Looking down, momentarily, she saw that the glass lens had shattered. Ignoring the torch, she stepped around the sharp shards, anxious to inform Bernard that the Kattadiya's potion was working. Maybe, the Kattadiya wasn’t a useless rasthiyadu karaya, after all. She was baffled though, as she hadn't swallowed the jungle-green liquid; she’d been pouring it onto the zinnias at dawn. Perhaps, even handling the concoction was sufficient for it to work. Francis intended to show Bernard the dog's saliva on her finger, ample proof to her that the creature was not an apparition.
Francis was radiant like the stars she’d been counting. The infection was getting better; soon it would be gone altogether. Once more she turned hopefully towards the zinnias and hibiscus hedge, where she’d seen the black dog; the creature hadn’t returned. But, the broken flashlight was now blinking rapidly, on and off in the blackness, an ominous warning, in the trampled zinnia patch.