It was already noon, when the car arrived at a halt in that sleepy town. Tired and exhausted, the young couple dragged their sleepy three-year old out of the car. The child immediately let out a shrill cry, demanding to go back to sleep. Out came a Dairy Milk, which silenced him immediately. Cradling him in their lap, they opened the gate. A dirty name plate read ‘Agastya/Augustus’. Heavy and rusted, it required a great deal of pressure. After much creaking and clanging, the gate opened. ‘It seems it hasn’t been opened for ages,” observed the woman. The man nodded in agreement.
“Here they come. Intruders”
The gate led them to a garden, cluttered with bushes, creepers and wild flowers. “This could have been such a beautiful garden,” sighed the woman. As they walked further, they noticed a tree occupying a major portion of the garden. It must have been many years old as the trunk was broad and the base was huge. Stark and bare, it had no leaves. It stood like a skeleton against the bright sunlight. The woman shuddered. Probably the man felt it too as he put an arm around her protectively.
“Saabji, go up the stairs. The keys are there in the bunch I have given you,” the driver barked instructions from outside.
“What a strange fellow. Did you see how he reacted when I told him to come inside with us? He is the one who should be showing us around and not shouting from outside,” the man remarked.
The stairs to the first floor were hidden behind the creepers and the trunk of the tree. As one climbed up, they could see the branches of the huge tree snaking out. “No leaves,” muttered the woman again.
A cosy two-roomed house with a kitchen, it was what they had been looking for. “Perfect for a small family and the parents when they visit us,” is what they decided. The red-floored veranda stole the show. It overlooked the street outside. “The money plant can grow here. The roses can be kept in that corner,” observed the woman. “The artificial lily pond can find its place in the corner beside the staircase. That would distract people from the creepy tree,” Saying this, she stole another glance at the tree and hurried inside.
She wondered where her child was. A mischievous and stubborn kid, it was tough managing him all by her own. To her utter surprise, she found him sitting on the ledge of the window and admiring the sights outside.
“Rishin beta, do you like this house?” He nodded. “It’s so big. It has a huge balcony. I can sit there and watch the birds and the flowers the whole day. What, if I set up my tent in that balcony and live there?” His mother ruffled his hair, planted a kiss on his temple and went looking for her husband.
“Vikrant…Where are you? You must be on your phone, I know. Can we get over with the house hunting phase and settle down. Hey?” she shouted once again. On reaching the kitchen, she stood still.
“Hey Maya, look what I found in this cupboard. A saucepan, some tea leaves, sugar and milk sachets and even an electric mini immersion. Whoa! Let’s have some tea.” He went back to his task of boiling the tea leaves, while Maya stood transfixed. It was unimaginable. The very man, who refuses to enter the kitchen or even lend a helping hand to her, was making tea for her!
“Now, stop staring at me and play with Rishin in that lovely balcony. I will be joining you in five minutes,” he shooed her away.
It was almost evening, when they decided to wrap up their evening session of tea. It would be dark soon and the house needed a thorough cleaning. The driver had already called them thrice urging them to hurry up. Rishin had by then, made many friends. He and his squirrel friends sat munching the biscuits that Maya had taken out.
“So, this is final?” asked Vikrant.
“Any doubts, dear husband,” asked Maya, her eyes twinkling with joy.
“Such a peaceful place, Maya, I want to stay here forever.”
“Yes, Ma,” chirped in the little boy. “I love my friends and my new playhouse.”
Maya smiled. It’s been years that she had had someone making tea for her. “Yes, FINAL,” she declared. Much to her astonishment, Vikrant embraced her. Rishin joined in with his tiny arms. That was bliss.
(Sigh). “Such a happy sight. A loving couple. I wish they move in fast. What, if they come to know? Will they leave? No, I can’t let that happen. NO!”
Two days later, they moved in. A truck full of stuff. It took the entire day to offload the things and set them up. Hectic and maddening, there was not much time for Maya. Vikrant had to go to office the following day while Rishin would start his new school. The kitchen had to be functioning, the bed rooms had to be set up and then she had plans for her garden. She headed for a quick shower.
She must have fallen asleep, for she woke up with a start. She looked around. She was lying in the bathtub. “Oh no,” she cried out and dried herself fast. Looking out, she found Rishin on his high chair, fingering his favourite French fries, while a lovely aroma wafted from the kitchen. There was Vikrant and he was cooking! “Oh my God, what are you doing?” cried out Maya. Vikrant dropped the ladle, held her by her arms, turned her around and made her sit on a chair. “Sit here and watch me! No more questions!”
While she sat there watching him, Vikrant went around the kitchen, looking for powders and jars, mixing ingredients, stirring the pot and getting the table ready. It was astonishing to see him move around so fast. Was it a dream, she pinched herself hard. No, it was happening for real. In less than fifteen minutes, the table was ready. Rice, pulses, French fries and egg curry, just the way she liked it, a simple and a complete meal.
They sat down for their first meal in the new house. Maya noticed that Rishin had, for the first time, finished his entire meal without assistance. That was a new milestone.
“Won’t you give me a compliment?”
Maya looked up with a start at her husband. He was smiling and blushing, just like the way he used to when they had started dating eight years ago. “Hey,” he nudged her, “what happened?”
“Umm, this is too much. I fell asleep and I don’t know for how long. I wake up to find baby finishing his meal. I wake up to find you cooking. Then, I sit down for a grand meal…too much to handle.”
“This is just the beginning, baby. Sorry, I have been too caught up with work.” Embracing her, he said, “We will have more of such moments, I promise. Now, let’s wrap up fast and go off to bed.”
“That is a good beginning. Glad that they are happy and sleeping fitfully. Hey squirrels, you better give that boy company just the way you have always given me. And dear owl, go and hoot somewhere else. Don’t wake them up.”
Maya was on her way to drop Rishin, when she met her neighbour. Mr Pathak lived next door, she had heard from the driver. She smiled at him. But, he ignored and turned away. Strange!
Rishin would be away for four hours which meant she had some more time to purchase the supplies for her garden. Locating a nursery, she made a list of all that she would need. The boy behind the counter offered to deliver the supplies home. The afternoon went by, but there was no sign of the delivery boy. Repeated calls to the store yielded no result. Finally in the evening, she heard the clanging of the gate. As she went downstairs, she reminded herself to fix the door bell next day.
“Bring them upstairs,” she instructed the boy. But, he did not move an inch.
“What happened? Can’t you hear me?” she repeated.
The boy looked at the tree, started shaking, mumbled something, dropped the supplies and sped away. A bewildered Maya stood there wondering what had frightened the kid.
As she dragged the bags inside, she saw Mrs Pathak peering through the window. Maya couldn’t help but feel offended. “How could people be so offensive? What had they done to be treated this way?”
Vikrant was home early that night. He did not sit down with his mobile or his laptop, neither did he check his emails or begin one of those long-drawn conversations with the sales team. They brought their food out in the balcony and had a cosy, moon-lit meal. Over a glass of wine, they declared, “life couldn’t be better.” Their stint in this small town was finally proving to be a turning point in their life.
Days passed. Rishin had adjusted well in school. The troublemaker had sobered down to a gentle and kind boy. Vikrant, the workaholic had learnt to balance work and home. He was also the chef on weekends. Maya enjoyed doing up the house and looking after their new garden. But they had no friends. None of their neighbours acknowledged them. A chance sighting would drive them indoors or make them flee the scene. Hurt and dejected they kept to themselves.
“They are settling down. They don’t need friends. They shouldn’t know.”
It was August. Almost six months had gone by. The heat was giving way to a gentle breeze. The monsoons were yet to bid adieu. To her surprise, she saw tiny leaves emerge from the tree. “A good omen, I am sure,” said Maya to herself.
It was a long weekend. Instead of travelling, they had decided to spend time at home.
She had woken up early. Vikrant and Rishin were still sleeping. Her plan was to dig up some space in the eastern corner of the garden and make space for a Tulsi Madapa. It had always been her dream to have a beautiful mandapa, artistically done up with flowers and Alpana.
The soil was too hard for her. The shovel came handy. Setting aside the soil she had dug out, she got ready to put in the ceramic Mandapa that they had purchased the night earlier. That’s when a flash of white caught her eyes. “A piece of cloth. It should be taken out before I put in the Tulsi,” she decided. She pulled it out to realize that it was firmly planted. The shovel was struck repeatedly. Finally the earth loosened its hold over it. A gunny sack came out. What followed was gruesome. The white was a t-shirt, probably the size of a ten-year old, stained with rust. No, that was not rust. A closer inspection revealed them as dried blood stains. Trembling, Maya rushed upstairs and woke up Vikrant. Vikrant joined her in her excavation. A blood-stained shorts and a vest came out. These were remnants of a bloody past. It was time to call in the police.
“They have found it. They will leave.”
The patch where the bag was found was cordoned off. Policemen came in with a sniffer dog. The dog stood for long in front of the tree and barked. It refused to climb up the stairs. After much persuasion, it did climb up and led them to the veranda, which was Rishin’s favourite place. Nothing was found.
The happiness that they had known in their new house was gone. The blood stains, the tee shirt haunted her. Vikrant looked lost and kept long hours in his office.
“No, I can’t see them turning into an unhappy family. I can’t let them lose it all.”
Sunday morning was interrupted with the shrill siren of the police van. The Inspector had decided to pay them a visit. “It seems there was a murder in this house,” he informed. Aghast, Maya and Vikrant looked at each other. “Well, you won’t know much about this. Since you are not from this locality, the brokers knew that it would be easy to rent it off to you. Four years ago, a child died here mysteriously. He was found hanging from that tree,” pointed out the inspector. “The case couldn’t proceed much as there was not much evidence. The neighbours suspected foul play. But the father was an affluent business man who covered it up. They moved away from this place immediately. The garments recovered seem to belong to the boy who was found dead. We will be conducting some more tests to prove that. Meanwhile, you are advised to remain here and make no arrangements to leave this house. Kindly cooperate,” were his last orders before he left the house.
Late afternoon, came a call from an unknown number.
“Madam, I am the owner of the gardening shop. Your house is haunted. Ever since that child died, the tree refuses to keep the leaves or bear flowers. It’s a Jasmine tree. Till date there have been three families who had shifted there. Every year, the tree would bear leaves. And then suddenly, they would all shed overnight. This shedding has always coincided with a death in the family. The dead would be found hanging from the tree. Stay away from the tree. Leave the house before it claims another victim, madam.” The phone got disconnected.
They sat still, thinking of the gory past and the dream that they had woven around it. The tree, yes, the tree….it had always sent a shudder down her spine, remembered Maya. As she looked around, she noted the squirrels waiting for Rishaan to wake up, the play house waiting for their occupant and the new leaves on the tree. She broke down into large sobs. Her dreams were gone. Her happiness had been short-lived. She cannot put her family into such jeopardy.
“It’s well past midnight. The child must have gone off to sleep. I can see the woman wandering aimlessly. They have lost so much in the last two days. Their happiness is gone, even their love for each other. The beautiful woman hasn’t eaten properly, neither has she cooked. There are dark circles under her eyes. Its almost time.”
It was two in the morning. Sleep eluded her. She wandered around in the veranda.. Her eyes darted towards the tree and she could almost see a child hanging from there. “No. No. I can’t think of it,” cried out Maya.
Looking up at the star lit sky, drawing the blanket closer, she crept inside Rishin’s play house. She dreamt that night.
She saw the boy in the white t-shirt climbing down the tree. He stood next to her. “Maami, I am Agastya, the one born in August. The house was named after me. You must have heard about Augustus, the Roman emperor! That is where I live,” he pointed towards the tree. “I have always loved to play there. Four years ago, the neighbours found me hanging. But, I did not commit suicide. I had no reason to. I loved my life and I loved my mother. That night she couldn’t protect me from baba. He came home drunk and beat up ma. I tried in vain to stop him and got in the way. I remember being hit by a sharp object repeatedly. I passed out in pain. When I woke up, I found ma crying. Baba was trying to hang me from that branch. They had changed my clothes and buried them. Since then, I have been here. They left. They never took me with them. I stayed back on this tree with the memories of my mother and my childhood. People rented this house. But they found the tree disturbing. I forgot to tell you that my friend, the tree, stopped bearing flowers, the day I died. A part of her died with me. The people decided to chop off my friend as they thought she was haunted. That’s when my friend cast her curse on them. She would shed off her leaves, warning them. But, they ignored. One of them died. This kept repeating. Whoever has tried to harm my friend, has died, She is the only friend I have,” replied the sad boy.
“You and your little boy reminded me of my childhood. I realised not all fathers are bad. But then you found it all out. I am here to pass on a message from my friend. She says that you should forget and move on. We will never harm you. Please pray for my release and we will reward you with flowers.” Saying this, the boy left a flower in her hands and clambered back to his resting place.
A sharp nudge woke her up. It was morning. A concerned Vikrant was stooping low, trying to drag her out from the tent.
As she sat wondering about the dream, she spotted the lone flower. She decided not to share it with Vikrant. The leaves were still there. But the fear of the tree was gone.
Days passed. The police had made an arrest and the case had proceeded to the court. The backyard had been cleared off. Their life was slowly moving towards some normalcy. Maya prayed everyday for peace.
She was cooking that morning when Rishin came running in. “Look Ma, such beautiful yellow flowers.” She stood immobile, for clutched in his hands were a bunch of the fragrant Jasmine flowers.
The tree was decked up in yellow and green. It shone in all its splendour. Agastya had found peace. Embracing Rishin, they decided to spend the day, adorning the Tulsi Mandapa with lamps, Alpana and the Jasmine flowers.
Tulsi – a sacred tree customarily kept in every house.
Mandapa – an erected platform around the scared plant, tulsi, which is adorned with hand drawn motifs
Alpana – hand drawn motifs
Maami – Aunt.
Saabji – Sir
Beta – son
Author’s note: The cover picture used in the story is copyrighted to the author and may not be used in any form without the prior consent of the author.
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