By Mandira Pattnaik
“A sharp and precise incision—you’d think he was a surgeon! Gouged out the animal liver, put it directly into his salivating mouth—warm and juicy—moving it around his mouth, flicking his tongue over the mushy texture, enjoying the taste.”
The Conjurer of Kaangpokpi’s testimony bound my brother Jay and me to bury our chins in the tiny cups of our palms and be all ears. Our elbows brushed against the fractured veneer of our dining table, but we ignored the pain. Mum receded behind the kitchen counter when the master storyteller described the man he saw crouched at a distance in the shadows behind his home several times over the last few nights. A form really, he’d convinced us.
We understood Mum didn’t quite approve of his tricks to draw our attention, but he continued.
“Hurried? No! The man wasn’t. The place was comfortably ensconced in thick groves, blanketed in ceaseless darkness above. Neither was he hungry; hungry men don’t close their eyes in deep satisfaction. Opening his eyes, the man would have seen only the distant light of a flickering bulb across the marsh, swaying madly to the violent autumnal winds. Neatly wiping clean the blade on his kerchief, the man stood up and left, humming a native tune, once or twice offensively interrupted by the howl of a wild jackal. After he had left, I slithered up and saw the black earth underneath the remains of what was once a wild dog, drenched crimson; its eyes stared at the Heavens—one last moment, asking, ‘What was my fault?’”
He looked at Mum from the corner of his eyes; she pretended to be busy.
Our curry boiled in the kitchen.
“Once in his faraway home, he must have unfastened the rickety door, gathered the rugs, and huddled on his bed. Sleep wouldn’t be far off.”
Jay and I felt nauseous and stood up almost in unison. We were repulsed by him anyway, and not only because of his narrative. The Conjurer was at home at this time of the night because Mum had taken a sudden fancy to him tonight at the store. Alex, he called himself, but we doubted that. He cut our escape short; disarmed us, saying he always told the truth. To us doubting believers, Alex, looking at us, though his words were aimed at Mum, said, “That’s how it happened. I swear! I’m an artist, Martha. Conjuring up truths disguised as lies is my art! Yes, you’ll be surprised how people can’t believe when you tell them upfront about how you are conjuring a trick. They dismiss it right away!”
Mum interjected, “Like…faking truth?”
“That’s what I do, yes! People don’t care. Or maybe they do. Anyways trapped in a dysfunctional uncaring world swathed in pathological neglect! What abyssal deprivation! They cheer when the showgirl is cut into two but gasp soundless when she’s rejoined!”
He paused for measure. Then, with intent to impress our School Mistress Mum, he added, “You’d comprehend the pleasure derived from pain of others, but fail to name it because the word’s so rare. It is called ‘epicaricacy.’”
The hamlet of Kaangpokpi, with its undulating green slopes, woke up to a usual morning. Smoke began rising from the chimneys. Women, with heavy cane baskets bandaged to their heads, made their way to the Makaibari tea estate. It was busy plucking season.
Jay and I, our rucksacks stuffed with the battery of knowledge, scurried toward school—Mum would have already begun caning the senior boys for being late.
In the thick grove, a couple of civets scuttled but did not venture near the carcass. Mangled remains of the brutalized dog were left undiscovered—until many days later.
In the warm glistening sunshine, the man in Alex’s story had been plucking weeds. He rose from his chore and began ogling the serpentine line of young women tea-pickers. When they converged on the horizon, he crouched again and continued tending the garden.
At night, when the moon was dreamily cruising on the clear starry skies and Kaangpokpi was deep asleep—either from overexertion or the effects of the local brew—a pair of domestic fowls laid at the Square with their entrails neatly dug out. No marks of claws or fangs, not even a blood trail. Their deaths had been instant.
The Traffic Square was too important a location for the massacre to be left undiscovered. People bunched around it early the next morning. Jay and I stopped in our tracks, dropped our heavy rucksacks, and began registering the gory details. Who or what killed the domestic fowls, without using fangs or claws to tear the intestines, or leaving unmistakable blood marks as carnivorous animals do, baffled us. The tea-pickers, marginal laborers, semi-starved and semi-clad, had the more important cause of daily wages to consider than hover over a tiny crisis. They let it pass. Children like us, for the first time in our lives, were dissecting horror; it soaked our tender minds like the crimson dyed earth below the fowls.
Over the next few nights, a foal, three ducks, a calf, and a chicken were found at various places, all with their entrails mysteriously missing. Alex dismissed the wild theories that spawned. He laughed at Mum’s apprehensions about zombie attacks, mutants, maybe vampires.
Lives of people here in Kaangpokpi had turned upside down. Panic spread. Mum and the tea-picker women murdered a few civets holding them responsible. Alex meekly defended them whenever he was home, telling her that the civets were not guilty. Jay and I could see that his magic on Mum was failing. Part of it had to do with the charged atmosphere. Alex was here at Kaangpokpi only a month. Only two weeks trying to woo Mum. We gave him an outside chance, although we didn’t like him much if he kept at it for some more time.
Meanwhile, night vigils ensued. Groups of people volunteered to patrol the deserted streets. People stayed indoors amid rumors the blood-thirsty could prey on infants next. My brother and I, though eleven and twelve, clung to Mum like little kids whenever as we could.
Alex broke down the last time he was at home. Between peeping over his shoulders like a hapless hunted animal, he cried like a baby, saying, “Martha, you too? Don’t you see how it is?”
Jay seemed moved by his plight. He whispered to me, “The man needs a life. He needs to be loved.”
Mum and I couldn’t care less.
People of Kaangpokpi gravitated toward some sort of permanency. If it were easier to grapple invisible enemies and meander through certain impossibilities, it was far harder to negotiate uncertain possibilities and uncomfortable truths. The murders abated after the night vigils. But one night, a young boy of about fifteen, on a solitary vigil, was attacked by a creature which he thought was an alien, grabbing him from behind and wrestling him to the ground. It let him go when he shrieked so hard he feared his entrails might burst out through his mouth.
Alex was in Buma for his Conjurer’s act at the carnival that night. If he heard of the incident, he didn’t come to share it with us.
Kaangpokpi abandoned the night vigils.
We were on the edge again. Mum and the women decided to collect hair, mucus, claws, whatever they could find to help identify the predator. In the afternoons, Jay and I banded behind them. We were on our own mission sleuthing for the elusive murderer. Back home, ‘round the dining table whose veneer was ripping off, we had our team meetings. The three of us made eliminations. This was not tiger or leopard territory, and wild dogs had not been spotted in the last twenty-five years. Footprints did not suggest jackals either. That only left the stray dogs.
But then, dog-killing dog?
Jay wondered aloud, “Is it really that unusual?”
In another part of Kaangpokpi, we came to know much later, the man in Alex’s story was down at the rosemary bushes, tending to the soft clay beneath them.
Now and then, he was peeping over his shoulders—a habit he couldn’t shrug off from his days at the Juvenile Correctional Home, age seven. Hard days, he thought to himself. Ruthless warden and a hegemonic inspector! They looked the other way, knowing everything about the goings-on under their watch.
The dark hallway leading to the dormitory, pregnant with the feeling of something horrible about to happen, heaved, though it repeated each night. The nocturnal adventures of the monster, far older than the rest of the boys—a man in fact—standing head and shoulders above his prey, the boys shivering in fear like taut strings plucked violently, had taken a particular fancy to the youngest, the seven-year-old and never touched the rest anymore.
He pushed the door open without a hint of guilt each night; the other boys feigned sleep, with eyes tight shut. His hairy legs towered over the tiny boy, shaking, holding his limbs together in a ball. But it was not enough. The monster had his vice-like grip on the boy, and then…
The man’s eyes were burning. He stood up clutching his head, swearing at invisible demons, collapsed, and almost squat on the bushes. The tender rosemary escaped being squished by inches.
Alex began to be in and out of town, leaving us alone, which was a blessing. He might (or might not) have known that Kaangpokpi had hired camera traps.
The camera traps had been in place for only a week when the elders of Kaangpokpi had images of the marauding serial predator.
When the black dome of the skies boasted the full face of the golden moon in his tiny home, the man in Alex’s story was honing his blade on an irregular whetstone. He checked for its sharpness under the condescending flame. The breeze carried a flurry of agitated voices, sounds that were approaching him, sounds of murderous rage, from the distant world outside.
Distant, afar, cold, unkind, passive world.
When the cold blade made a sharp, precise incision on his agitated flesh, he only savored the moment with his eyes closed. Relieved.
Sometime later, when Jay and I were allowed to have a look, we were prepared for the sickening scene. Jay walked on his toes while I pulled my skirt up, so it did not damage the “crime scene.” Inspector Bo handed us a note, surprisingly addressed to us. It had the gory details of a past life in a world that had let a child be abused; then slip into madness in an epicarical world, an animal world.
Alex’s eyes stared at the Heavens, one last moment, asking, “What was my fault?”
Born and raised in India, Mandira Pattnaik writes flash and poetry. Her work has appeared, most recently, in Watershed Review, Passages North, Trampset, Press53, Bending Genres, NFFR, FlashBack Fiction, Citron Review and Amsterdam Quarterly, among other places. Her writing has also been included in anthologies, translated and received nominations for Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, Best SmallFictions and Best Microfiction. Upcoming are pieces in Flash: International Short-Short Story Mag, Timber Journal and Miracle Monocle. Tweets @MandiraPattnaik
Art by Adam Ward