By David V.M.
Chacko found himself sitting at the dinner table.
He wondered briefly when he awoke. His fingers were trembling with age and perhaps something else. A cool breeze rifled through the trees outside the window. Moonlight reflected off a thousand leaves so that he could see nothing but a psychedelic haze of colours through the patches in his vision.
It was in moments like this that he could feel the full weight of his deterioration.
He felt for his glasses and found them on the edge of his table. He put them on. He squinted at the clock, struggling to see past the darkness and cataract. Two o clock.
Chacko did not like the dead quiet of the night. But it was always quiet now.
He had to get used to living alone. He had to get used to that odd timbre the house reverberated with whenever he hummed his old worship songs.
The sound of loneliness. That’s what he thought.
Most of the time, when he was all there, he could understand why that had to be.
Lizzy died five years ago.
He stayed with his son Joji as long as they let him. But the suggestions about special-homes, the accidentally misplaced brochures on his nightstand and most of all, the absolute lack of attention they deigned to give him, all grew to be too much.
Chacko told them he’d like to live alone. In his old house. The one he built. They didn’t object.
He’d have strange thoughts, every now and then. About hitting his little boy across the face. He couldn’t remember Joji’s face anymore as it now was. He could only remember the little boy in his vest and suspenders with all his big words and English education. Ignoring his father. Disrespecting him. He was never one to spare the rod.
Chacko would get a hold of himself when he was all there.
But Chacko wasn’t always all there nowadays. He didn’t really need his doctor (little slut with her college degree and big words) to tell him. Although she had.
He decided not to think about that just then.
He stepped into his old, worn shoes and managed to trudge through his little cottage.
Chacko emerged into the street outside. Two other houses stood on either side, both occupied. A young couple stayed in the house on the left. He could hear their coital ecstasy. He did not appreciate that. It always reminded him of those ghastly UN posters. A slum next to some American suburb. He never much enjoyed contrast.
Chacko did not like to feel so old.
He shuffled slowly past the couple’s house just where he could hear the lake. It was not as tranquil as he would’ve liked. His hearing was still miraculously unmolested and he could hear the subtle, quite little splashes only skin could make.
It was in the middle of the night. Who else would join him at the lake now?
He knew he was going to the lake.
He did not know why he began going there. And he did not much care. He went yesterday. And the day before. And the day before. And the day before. And beyond his count. He was always there. A small, watchful old man, staring at the pocked surface of a thin old pond he dared called a lake. The paltriest lake in all of Kerala. All of India, probably. And he was the paltriest old man.
But he was a jealous old man.
An image came to his head, clear as day. That young couple. Ajay and Sonia, or something like that. There they’d be, in the middle of the lake. Splashing. Paddling. Touching. Fornicating.
He ignored the rational part of his mind that told him they were married. He wasn’t even some there tonight. He was not there. Something alien, yet tantalizingly familiar clung to him like old cologne.
He kept on, feeling more and more like a soldier heading for battle with each new step.
And as he lost himself in his own thoughts, the lake snuck up on him.
The world was orange. Makeshift streetlights flickered with some ghost of government supply and they guided him to the little crook in the road he often missed. He turned.
There was never a time the lake didn’t take his breath away. It was not big but he could not see how far it stretched in the night.
He still heard the splashes. They were there, of course. He could almost see them right around the leafy stretch of a low hanging tree. They were (would be) there.
He was ready.
There were some things you just didn’t do. It didn’t matter which era you were in. It didn’t matter how old you were.
A dog sat at the edge of the lake.
He spat. A vitriolic, petulant wad of saliva and phlegm that he coughed on to the fine sand. Not the lake. Never the lake, of course.
He knew this dog. He fed it, every so often. Chakara, its name was. The colour of jaggery. Old and weak, just like him. A splotchy red collar, waiting to tear. This reject dog was foreign. It did not belong here.
But he liked to believe he was foreign here too. He didn’t belong in this house and this little stretch of land. This wasteland for the old. This house had always been there, waiting for him with its sounds of loneliness.
He was foreign to it.
The only place he felt at home at was the lake.
The dog was standing crouched at the edge of the water, not venturing a step further, careful not to let the wave touch its paws.
It held a puppy by its collar. A small, mewling little thing.
Chacko stooped and waited next to it.
Ripples spread in cascading patterns. He waited for the happy couple to emerge from the depths, probably naked, probably oblivious to the old man watching them.
A deer materialized from the water, muzzle cresting the surface of the lake.
A dead deer.
Rot and decay clung to it. Flies buzzed.
It swam very un-deerlike. Closer and closer to the foreigner.
And then more. A giraffe’s neck, cut in half by the looks of it, fused perfectly with a hippopotamus’ breast. A chicken wing stuck out of its back.
And then odd specimens he couldn’t really understand. The name flamingo flickered into his mind. A little picture in a children’s book he leafed through years ago.
He was shocked, not just at how bizarre the thing was but at how beautiful he felt it to be.
It was deliciously derelict. Every appendage was old and green with moss. Or rot. Or both. A hodgepodge of biology.
It was the lake.
And it was him, he supposed.
He waited as the dog moved forward, the wiggling, worming little thing held tight in its mouth.
The lake came closer. It opened its maw. It was fed.
The puppy did not die. He could see it, still squirming inside the thing. Clawing it’s way upwards, not downwards to the rest of the animals. Seeking higher ground to pitch its tent.
The concatenation sat absolutely still as the puppy absorbed itself into it. A little head emerged, just between the deer’s ears. A dog’s head, now thoroughly rotting.
The dog barked. A loud jubilant bark, nothing like the aged croon it usually emitted. Chacko turned to look at it. The dog sat tall and straight. The old, slumped shoulders were now firm and rigid. Muscles tensed. The collar looked like it was bought yesterday.
He began walking. Closer and closer. The dog seemed to realize what he was about to do. It did not waste time barking. It lashed out at him, holding him tight by the pant legs and dragging him backwards.
He fell face first on the soft sand.
He crawled like the old kabaddi player he was. Sand slipped between his fingers like water. The dog pushed.
The lake went back into itself.
Long, dry sobs racked through him. He did not hurt the dog, as much as he wanted to.
He understood in some animal sense. The lake accepted only gifts. It was a subterranean goddess. You could not give yourself to the lake. At least, not like that. The dog gave up its prey.
Chacko had to give something to the lake too. And in return, the lake would give him another shot at life.
He hobbled his way back home and drank as much old brandy as he could find, his mind awash in thought.
He brought old things back up. Recent memories. His doctor told him not to dwell on things like that.
A household, moving around him. Never paying any attention. Giving him food. Giving him the succour he needed. But never what he wanted.
Until even that proved too much for the people he called his family. He sat down with the aim to seethe and seethe he did. He fell asleep on the kitchen chair.
Chacko did not change the next morning. He only combed his hair and washed his face.
He went out. He caught an auto-rickshaw and rode to the bus stop. He clambered into an AC bus that took him as far as Thevara. And then he caught another auto.
The day was overcast. It reminded him of the colour of the lake just after twilight. There would only be a palimpsest of sunlight, revealing nothing. In all his long life, he had never seen a poker-face quite like that of the lake. Chacko was thinking more and more in terms of the lake.
Stray dogs barked at him as the auto juddered and careened around potholes.
They would spray kerosene over the deep ones.
Little lakes made impermeable. The mosquitos would begin life in a prison of fat and fuel.
These lakes were not like his lake.
His lake was freedom.
He paid the auto driver after only a little haggling and he began his walk. It was a dark place, trees bent over on either side and blocking out whatever sunlight there was to begin with. Little roadways with plaster peeling off the walls on either sides. ‘Stick no bills’ was emblazoned on them at regular intervals in thick, red block letters. These walls are dirty but they are ours. Do not desecrate them.
He walked past the open gate, past the manicured lawn (he paid for that) and up the marbled porch.
He rang the bell.
A mechanical bird chirped from somewhere deep within the hall.
His daughter in law opened the door.
Chacko liked her father which was why he made the arrangement in the first place. He did not know her. He struggled to remember her name. Geena, he thought it was.
The world went into a ragged, patchy slow-motion. He saw her face change from curiosity to an odd disgust (age was disgusting, he could sympathize) and then a mask of what looked like affection. Not love.
“Papa! This is such a surprise.”
He managed a smile. “Can I come in?”
“Of course! Come in come in.”
Chacko obeyed. She closed the door behind him. Their hallway was a huge, vaulted structure, the size of both storeys. The second floor did not extend to the top of this room. It was like entering a cathedral.
An architectural disaster, in his opinion.
There was no worship here. How could there be when there was no lake?
He sat down on the sofa and stretched his legs.
“Why’d you come without calling, Papa?” she asked, her face very sweet. No wonder Joji didn’t argue when the proposal was sealed.
“Just thought I’d surprise you all. Where are the kids?”
Chacko saw her face tighten. Memories, no doubt. Old dark things he had stirred up with his unexpected arrival. He rather enjoyed this, he had to admit.
“Janet’s gone for maths tuition. Johnny’s playing with his friends.”
He nodded. He remembered Johnny. Johnny used to sit next to him sometimes. He would watch the seven-o-clock news with him. Maybe talk with him a little about his day.
Until his mother called him away to do his homework.
Geena stood on the threshold and prattled. He kept up his end of the conversation.
She left the room after that conversation missed one too many beats.
He waited patiently.
It was not supposed to take this long to make tea.
He leafed through the day’s newspaper. Not many names he recognized anymore. And it wasn’t as easy as it always was to read small print.
He put it down and flipped through the Christian magazines. Little pamphlets of piety kept hallowed and untouched. Nobody read any of that stuff.
The front door creaked open and Janet entered. She was all of thirteen. He supressed the first thought that came into his head (dressed like a harlot). He smiled and she waited, her face tight.
Her mother arrived at the doorway, holding a cup of tea. Not steaming. A plate of beef-cutlets. Tomato ketchup.
“Go give your Appachen a hug.” Janet was told.
Janet came and gave her Appachen a hug.
Her Appachen did not much enjoy it. He felt cold. And sick to his guts. There was no love in that moment of contact. There was a fierce anti-love. Not hate because there is love in that as well. A malign indifference.
He could die right there and she would gracefully uncoil her slender, pallid arms and walk up to her room in her harlot’s clothes. She would sleep a peaceful sleep. The lake would go forgotten.
Nobody would know about the lake.
Everything (everything) had to do with the lake. She sat awkwardly on the sofa next to him. She tried to minimize contact. He helped.
They came to a small, tense understanding.
They waited till Joji arrived. Joji was trying hard to be as different from him as possible. Chacko had been a wiry, muscular little man in his youth. Joji grew a little every time he saw him. Joji was far taller than him (the old Syriac blood) and far wider than he ever was.
They went through the motions.
Some kind of love, he supposed.
He smelled of banks. He had always wanted Joji to become some sort of engineer. Some sort of creator of little machines. A maker.
Joji made money now. And put money into vaults. Chacko couldn’t really bring himself to see the honour in that.
“How did you manage the journey?” Joji asked, rolling up his shirtsleeves.
Chacko told him about the autos and the bus.
“Oh,” he said. “That’s good. It’s good that you’re so active at this age. You’re staying for dinner, right?”
Chacko would be staying for dinner.
Johnny arrived a few minutes later. He held a cricket bat across his shoulders. He looked puzzled for a moment. And then recognition changed his face. He smiled.
Johnny walked across the room and sat next to him.
Chacko ruffled his hair. “Did your team win?”
“Mm Hmm! By nine runs!”
“That’s not bad. Any sixes?”
The boy looked up at him. “Are you going to stay?”
Chacko thought of what to say.
A voice rang from across the room. “Johnny, get changed! It’s almost time for dinner.”
Just like old times.
Joji sat at the dinner table and Chacko joined him. Janet came a while later in a glittery t-shirt. Geena came and went, carrying some new plate loaded with food.
A little thought wormed its way into his mind.
He ignored it.
It was only when he was halfway through his rice and fried fish that he allowed himself to accept the inevitable.
“I want to go to Appachen’s house,” the boy said.
He understood. The lake wanted a gift. And the gift had to be a part of him. And there was only one unmolested, pure, perfect part of him left.
“He has an exam on Sunday,” Geena said.
“I’ll have to drop Papa anyway. We’ll be back in a couple of hours.”
And in the back seat of the car, next to the only part of him left in the world, he told stories of the lake.
The boy listened.
He appreciated the wonder in his face. He was exaggerating, of course. There were no goldfish. There were no little birds swooping across the surface. There were no swings and slides next to it.
But the lake (he) deserved a little respect.
The three of them got out of the car. Three generations. Only one of them worthy.
He fiddled with the rusting padlock on the gate and they entered. Joji entered and began surveying the house. Examining the furniture. “Looking for damage,” was what he told him but they both knew.
He didn’t know when the little clock started ticking. But it was. Wood was waiting for him. Wood and dirt and an eternity under the soil. A part of the flora.
Unless the lake accepted him. Or whatever part of him he had to offer.
“Appacha, take me to see the lake.”
Joji refused to go with them, of course. The lake didn’t want him there.
Chacko felt rationality ebb and flow.
He couldn’t go through with it, of course. He wouldn’t. He’d see reason eventually. He had to. But the lake waited for him, fat and pregnant. But wanting. And he was willing and eager to give.
The walk was mercifully short and he could feel a dry ache in his chest. His mouth was parched.
Crickets chirped and dull waves splattered against mud and smooth rocks.
The smell of his impending destiny filled his nostrils. The taste of promise.
“I can’t see any swings and slides.” Johnny said.
“They must’ve moved them. For cleaning.”
He nodded. “Can I go to the water.”
“Of course you can.”
He saw the dog pattering beside him, alive and eager. Cats watched from the distance, their eyes glinting in the moonlight. Chitinous things scrambled through the sand with smaller specimens in their grasps.
All of creation came with gifts to feed the lake. They were waiting for him to go first.
He waited for the lake to come to him.
Dog first, rotting and dead, then the deer and then all the rest.
He caught the boy under his arms and lifted him, interrupting his play.
“Appacha, what are you doing?” he squealed. He splashed his legs in the water and giggled.
Chacko held the boy’s mouth shut.
The puppy opened its mouth this time. A wide, gaping appendage. He pushed the boy in.
The boy refused. He pushed. He struggled.
The boy’s Appachen felt his legs catch. He didn’t have much strength left.
He felt some last part of himself come back to him. He had to stop. There was no way in hell he could kill the one person in the world he still cared for.
Old faces flickered in front of him. The way Janet laughed at him when he flipped through her schoolbooks. The way Joji never even looked at him anymore. Like as if he didn’t exist.
The way that house waited for him every day, old and lonely, just like him.
Thoughts jostled for room.
(you are murdering your grandson)
He thought of the way their faces would change when they saw the new him. Young again. Fresh.
He was denied one life so he’d make himself a new one.
Chacko smiled. He never understood himself so clearly before.
(I am the lake)
He gave the mightiest push he could muster.
The boy screamed.
He did not concentrate on the thud of footsteps on wet sand.
He felt strong arms behind him, pushing him.
The boy shot off to the side.
The puppy’s mouth lay wide open. The lake’s mouth. There was no puppy anymore.
He felt rage convulse through him. He could hear voices from behind him, the young couple struggling to get Johnny running again. Because it was, as always, the young that mattered. For the old, you carve a big wooden box and wait till the clock stops ticking.
Chacko closed his eyes and sunk his face into the warm sand. He felt little things grabbing at him, trying to latch. He wondered whose sacrifice he might be. The boy’s? His neighbours’? Perhaps he was the only prey that came with no strings attached. Nobody for the lake to heal. Only an old man nobody wanted anymore.
He sighed and made himself at home.
I hope you enjoyed this short story by David – I thought it was a great little piece of weird fiction.