THE NECKLACE OF FINGERS
A FOREST, VAST and pregnant. So many trees in her womb, sal and mango, apple and guava, oak and banyan, ancient sentinels standing guard over the wild parcel of land for millennia. Green as Chinese jade, brown as earth. Black in places where the criss-cross of boughs did not allow sunlight to pass through. Deer and wild pigs munched grass contentedly in little glades, unaware of the wolves that watched them. The forest was alive with sounds. So many sounds. The growling and snarling of long-toothed predators, the warble of birds, the shrill song of crickets. The trample of hard boots.
They came from the East. From the shining new capital city that the Rajah had raised as a mark of his wealth. Around a hundred men both young and old, encased in vests of boiled leather and crumpled cotton trousers. The richer ones also wore earrings and thick bracers to ward off sudden knife blows, but swords dangled from every soldier’s hip. All of them gripped torches and I could smell the worn sinew and whittled buffalo horn of bows in some hands. A pack of vicious mastiffs ran about their heels, yapping incessantly in the morbid excitement of the hunt.
All of a sudden, the forest was charged with the odours of man, beast and iron.
A pair of soldiers were headed this way even as I cursed my luck. Why did I have to murder the noblewoman that morning? Stupid, whining creature that she was, never far from an entourage of servants and private guards. Today she had decided on a whim to savour the freedom that the forest brought and the gods had led her straight to my hut, hungry, thirsty and desperately lost. It was a golden opportunity.
I slit her throat even as he greedily quaffed the water I offered her. I remember the familiar warm gush of sticky blood rushing over my hands and the look of ugly confusion freezing the woman’s face as she died. I quickly snipped her index finger and dragged her all the way to the highway to be discovered by some concerned servant. That is how my legend has grown all these years.
Except the noblewoman had been a distant cousin of the Rajah. And the king could not hold back the gaggle of angry courtiers and merchant princes who descended upon him and urged him to uphold his pledge. Hence this huge war party combing the narrow, crabbed corridors for a single quarry—me. I should have been pleased. Picking off soldiers one by one was no big deal for me. It would only see the end of my long servitude and free me from the obligation that paranoid old bastard had laid on me.
But peeping down amid the branches of a giant oak I scanned the faces of the men who stopped beneath it for rest. The torchlight was bright enough to make out their features down to the last detail, and in them, I saw the rugged hardness of the fisherman and woodcutter who had been thirty-sixth and forty-ninth victims. They had come for vengeance. Sons of the men and women whose shrivelled fingers I wore in a necklace around my neck.
I looked up at the gibbous moon and cold blinking stars. This was going to be a long night, and they were not helping one bit by glowing so fiercely.
‘Bloody thorns,’ Baya hissed and sucked his torn thumb. He had wandered into a tangle of briar. ‘They’re everywhere.’
Sashi swept the torch from side to side to engulf a wide swath of orange light. The twisted bole of trees and clusters of shrubs seemed almost ghostly at night like demons were lurking just beyond the line of prickly vegetation. An owl hooted and he started in fear, only to chuckle in relief when the big bird took to the air in irritation.
‘My grandfather warned me against this place,’ he told his friend. ‘Evil spirits reside here. Even those who stray inside during daytime run the risk of being skinned alive by pisachinis.’
Baya, who had had some knowledge of Vajrayana from a wandering Tibetan monk, snickered but kept his thoughts to himself. Pisachinis did not simply occupy the mortal plane as they wished. Especially not in this land where Vajrayana was outlawed and punishable by death. He checked the sharpness of his steel and thumbed the newly fitted hilt.
‘I don’t know about flesh-eating witches, but the forest is the playground of a ghastly murderer indeed. And to my mind, man is a terrifying enough beast when he decides to be evil.’
Sashi shushed him, whispering the name of Buddha several times under his breath. He was one of the best archers in the army and had grown up in one of the farthest hamlets of the kingdom, hence his brain was chock full of myths and superstitions. But even Baya was forced to agree with most of the band tonight. The person they had come to hunt in this forest was more monster than man.
Over the past two years, he had acquired a legend which mothers transformed into fables and recited daily to scare naughty children to sleep. Priests chanted mantras and drew wards on doors, worried headmen conscripted reluctant peasants to patrol the borderlands and towns threw another layer of bricks around their homes to keep away the nocturnal murderer. He was a rakshasa, a fell warrior, a servant of the fearsome Asuras who came to punish the kingdom for its myriad sins.
‘Scared?’ Baya teased. ‘Should I speak his name aloud?’
‘No!’ Sashi punched his shoulder. ‘What if he-’
A low moan floated out of a snarl of vegetation behind them. In the blink of an eye, all the expensive state-sponsored training kicked in and Sashi whirled around, angling the torch away from him to illuminate the foliage. Broad-bladed leaves and thick vines entwined around the trunk of what appeared to be an oak from the dawn of time. A few squirrels skittered away into the darkness. Baya drew his sword with a harsh clang and twirled the dagger in the other hand. Despite all the bravado, he could feel his heart throbbing very clearly and fear stabbing the pit of his stomach. Oh gods, please-
There was another moan. Before either of them could do something, an old man crashed out of the plants right into their path. His withered, leathery skin looked even more hideous in the half-glow and his eyes watered in…pain? A few clumps of grey hair clung to his scalp like seaweed to spray-blasted rocks. His rags were drenched in sweat and what looked like blood. The man blinked in the sudden light and gaped at the two soldiers who gaped back at him.
‘Please help me! Please…please help me,’ the man muttered and stepped towards them. Baya gnashed his teeth. For all he knew, this could be one of the many brigands who inhabited the forest along with the killer on whose trail they were. He could be a scout. ‘Please help me! He will tear me apart!’
‘Who are you, old man?’ Sashi asked. His voice held a note of concern but he remained steadfast. ‘And what did that to you? Animal?’
‘Animal? Worse than an animal, sir. Worse than anything else in this entire bloody world.’ He clapped a hand on his neck and stared wildly beyond them. ‘Eyes like burning embers, a smile as cold as the Himalayas, mind churning faster than the wheels of the fastest chariot. He came upon me as I was gathering water from the pool and slashed my neck. I-I-I will faint…’
The old man lurched on his feet as if he was about to pass out. Sashi moved forward to catch him but Baya held him back with a sharp bark. His mind was still racing, forming assumptions and ideas by the second. What if this was a trick and he was going to slice open Sashi’s throat with a hidden knife as soon as he made to pick him up? He thought of blowing on the conch and summoning the other soldiers to the spot. It would be the most prudent course of action. From what he had heard the killer was an extremely skilled interloper and could take the guise of any character he chose rather adroitly. Once again, it was difficult to sift fact from fiction.
‘We took the king’s gold and swore an oath,’ Sashi spoke. ‘Leaving one of his subjects to die is a criminal offence.’
‘Who will know?’ the other man shot back. ‘We will not tell anyone. As long as you don’t stab me in the back things will be fine.’
Precious seconds trickled like sand in an hourglass. Time froze and decreased into that patch of earth in a corner of the forest like a macabre tableau. Baya and Sashi were ready to end the stranger’s life, while the old man, wounded and tired, astonished them with a tale of horror. He had seen the murderer or perhaps he was the murderer. There was a difficult decision to make.
‘Whatever you do, do not linger here anymore,’ Sashi warned. The shadows were getting under his skin. He had unsheathed a long knife and held it ready for action.
‘I’m going to summon the band,’ Baya replied and plucked the conch from his belt. He raised the tapered end to his mouth and blew hard. A high, sweet note blew across the forest.
Three things happened at the same time. A horn responded to the alarm far, far away. Sashi moved closer to his friend and as a result, the flickering torch cast a brighter sheen onto the latter’s face. The old man’s jaw hung open. His upraised hands trembled as if from extreme cold and the front of his soiled trousers sported a fast-growing circle of wetness.
‘You…’ he whispered. Then louder, ‘You.’
A gust of breeze blew around the trio. Sweat dropped to the rotten mushrooms and dead wood littering the forest floor. The leaves rustled and something scaly slithered over Sashi’s foot. He nearly screamed in alarm.
‘Hey, what’s the matter, old man?’ he snarled. ‘Seen a ghost?’
‘Worse than a ghost. It’s him. The rakshasa. See how he changes forms. He is a fallen god, I think. He will punish me…punish me…punish me.’
Swivelling his neck around, Sashi found nobody but a befuddled Baya frowning at the old man. There was nothing for miles around except the foxes and the trees. Suddenly, he felt the icy cold fingers of an unexplained fright grab his throat. He began moving towards the old man with the air of menace radiating from every pore. Whatever was about to go down would go down within the next few minutes.
The old man leapt. He did it so naturally that Sashi saw his arms and legs bunch and release like a grasshopper but his brain failed to register it. Frothy spittle flew from the assailant’s mouth as he came forth, fingers curved into claws. He neither screamed nor yelled. Just went straight for the fully armed and armoured soldier with little thought for his own life. Sashi recovered fast enough to take a step back and drive the long knife right through his ribs and up to pierce the beating heart.
The old man gargled blood and died. He had been so brittle and shaken in life that death seemed to be an eager release; he claimed it as a birthright. Sashi stood there with half his arm entombed in the corpse. The stench of opened bowels and coppery blood corrupted the sweet air. When he had drawn a few breaths, the soldier let the body fall, wiped his blade on the soiled rags and returned it to the sheath.
Sashi went down on his knees and searched the corpse. Parting the remnants of a shirt revealed an old necklace of finger bones strung together with hemp cord perched limply between the stark ribs. He uttered a cry of surprise.
‘Look here! This is the murderer indeed! He has the necklace of fingers!’
He grinned in delight and looked back at his friend. Something tugged at his throat. Sashi scowled, then gasped blood and expelled air as the clean slice manifested itself. He thrashed around for a while in agony and shock. His vision blurred. The torch became an orange blur and melded with the black and sickly green of the forest.
As the soldier died, his final sight was Baya reaching down to lift up his left hand. There was an expression of malicious content in the man’s eyes. Then death arrived on winged feet and whisked his soul away before he could suffer the indignity of watching his body being desecrated.
Shocked? Confused? Curious? I completely understand these emotions. Wait a minute while I snip the soldier’s finger. This one was an archer and his hands are stiff with practice. It takes me some time but I manage to hack through sinew and bone. There, another step closer to freedom.
You see, the mind is a fragile gift of nature. It trusts or distrusts too easily and more often than not relies on what the mass is saying, rather than making its own deductions. When I had wandered into the village near the river Anoma earlier that morning, nobody recognized me. It was expected of them.
The monster around whose legend added layer after layer of adornments was seven foot tall, red-eyed, sprouted dishevelled locks from a misshapen scalp and glistening fangs from his mouth. The man who asked politely for a cup of ale at the tavern could have been any of the hundreds of carpenters, tanners, blacksmiths, swineherds and soldiers who passed that way regularly.
It was in the tavern that I overheard the Rajah’s decree to send his hunters to my home and flush me out by any means possible. How I laughed secretly when I heard the righteous speech he had delivered at court today, in front of all his concubines and ministers. If only the lion knew how the wolf had snuck inside his lair! Oh, the joy!
Then a young soldier arrived at the tavern and purchased some bread and goat cheese. He had been summoned by the headman as part of the levy that was to participate in the hunt, and from his talk, I realised this was his first prominent operation. But what stunned me most was how much he resembled me. The eyes, the nose, the curve of the lips. It could have been me in that armour, carrying the sword and dagger. Slowly, as I sipped the cold brew, the seed of a plan took root in my head.
I got up and followed the soldier when he went out through the backdoor. The village was nothing special, just a collection of sorry hovels intersected by paddy fields where slimy catfish wriggled and squirmed around my feet. When sufficient distance had been achieved between us and the village, I called out to him. The lad halted and turned, not sure what to make of the cheerful man who hobbled towards him. I stopped when my face was mere inches away from his and relished the resemblance for some time.
‘What do you want?’ he asked impatiently.
‘How beautiful you are! What is your name?’
I crushed his windpipe with a punch that a Kalarippayattu master from India had taught me. It was the most painless death I could gift him since I did not carry my garrotte or knife at the moment. Baya died and left this pathetic world, and I took on his skin. I became him in the flesh even if my mind remained my own. Belting on the heavy blades, I dragged his body into a shallow pit some distance away from the road and retraced my steps back home.
The old man was easier to deal with. He lived like a hermit on my territory and I had respected him so far since he posed no threat, but tonight was different. I pounced on him with all manner of bestial yowling and snarling and ensured that he got a good glimpse of my face and attire before allowing him to flee. Circling back to the hunting party, I selected a soldier who appeared to recognize me from before and led him astray. The forest is my playground, remember? I grew up in its many twists and turns, glades and gullies, hillocks and hollows. Choosing the path the wounded old man would take was child’s play for me.
I have two more fingers to add to my collection now. I must prepare to snare the soldiers who must be hurrying this way even as we speak via other means. What? You are still confused about the scene I laid before you at the beginning? Staring down at the soldiers as they searched for me, trying to figure out a way to evade them.
There is a very simple explanation for that. I lied. Not trusting even the woman who bore me is how I have managed to survive so long in this business where young men die fast.
I am Angulimala. Finger-Taker. Necklace-Weaver. Rakshasa. And you are in my tale now.