It was around 9pm.
She was heading home after work. After a tiring train journey and a shared autorickshaw ride from the station, these last 99 steps had to be walked. She paused for a few seconds staring ahead and tightening the straps of her bag to get prepped for the walk.
For lay ahead, a black road on a moonless summer night. The road itself was dimly lit by a few frugal streetlights that were overpowered by towering Ashoka trees on both sides, backed into a row of 5 storied building, almost deserted and crumbling. A few lights were lit in select flats, those few families like hers who were waiting till the last minute, before they moved out.
Just small cogs in the wheel of a massive redevelopment project waiting its turn to be demolished and rebuilt, as a township for the future.
“72 straight steps and a left, 27 straight steps and home…”
…she reminded herself. If it weren’t for that left turn on step 72, she would have been able to see her house right from step 1. Her house, where her ailing 55 year old mother was waiting for her, with her 2 year old daughter.
But this wasn’t a new thought, she had grown up here and this thought had occurred to her many times before. It was because of this thought that she had gotten down to counting the exact number of steps it took her, to get home. At the end of the day, it was just a road that had stopped overwhelming her a long time ago.
And so she began walking…
99 Steps to Home.
99 Steps to Home.
Step 9: A few steps and she realizes that she isn’t walking alone. Someone was walking a few steps behind her. A quick glance back and she sees an old woman in a pale green sari, walking with a distinctive hobble, 5 odd steps behind her. She instantly decides to slow down and let the old woman go ahead.
Step 18: A puny old woman in a Kasta Marathi sari, covering her forehead with the pallu walks past her, never once looking up but constantly murmuring something to herself, but not audible enough to make sense. Though the light on this patch of the road wasn’t favorable at all, her eyes still searched out for one thing, the old woman’s feet.
Step 27: Even since she heard the story the first time, she knew that’s what she had to do. The urban legend was that of a witch, who once roamed these 99 steps, on the night of Amavasya (New Moon night in Sanskrit language when there is no moon at night), taking different forms of humans, waiting to prey on unsuspecting people, especially females. But like every other urban legend, the tale had no specifics. Just rumors and far-fetched stories to claim veracity, with an argument that nobody lived to tell the tale. But there was a failsafe to the story, if it ever were to occur to someone. The witch in any form would look like normal human being except for her feet. Her feet in any form would be backwards, toes facing the back and heels facing front.
Step 33: She tries her best. Never overtaking the old woman, eyes focused on the road that the old woman walked on, but she still can’t see the feet.
Step 42: The old woman’s feet seemed to be eaten up by the darkness around. The bleak spread of light from the lamp-posts at times brings in view her sari clad body, but never her feet which seemed to disappear into the blackness of the black tar road.
Step 51: The witch supposedly always preyed on women, the younger the better. This part of the tale strikes her with a realization that at the end of the road, in a row of deserted buildings, lives just one family, in a ground floor one bedroom-hall-kitchen flat. And that family has a young girl, her 2-year-old baby, Anjali.
Step 53: She is ready for the palpitations as they begin, but not for the fear that sends a shiver down the spine, when she thinks of her daughter. Her knees wobble signalling the sense of panic that has crept up in her. In her focus to regain composure, she fails to notice that the old woman had turned to look back at her. For if she had noticed, in that very moment and in that very dim light, she would have seen a sari clad head turn. And an ageing wrinkled face turned around and looked at her through hollow eyes, while the body walked straight ahead.
Step 56: The anxiety passes over and as she gets a grip of herself, looks ahead and realizes that the old woman is walking hurriedly as if with purpose. Gripping her bag tight, she picks up her pace, wanting to be right behind the old lady at turn of step 72, for the lamp-post that stood free of the Ashoka trees, and lit up a spot on the road well enough for her to discernibly scan the old woman’s feet.
Step 61: As she gets a few steps closer, she is able to hear what the the old woman’s is muttering. The old woman is repeating to herself in Marathi, ‘Mi thambnarrr nahi’ (I wont stop), over and over again. She heaves a sigh of relief realizing that the old woman is probably scared like her, thinking a witch is following her.
Step 68: She increases her pace and walks right next to the old woman as they almost reach step 72
Step 71: The old woman enters the brightly lit spot, and stops. She walks right next to the old woman. Staying true to her hunched form, the old woman never looks up, her eyes glued to the ground.
Step 72: She takes a step towards the old woman with the intention to talk to her but the old woman turns and looks to her left, towards her house with a burning intent. She is about to touch the old woman’s arm, but as if on cue, the old woman turns to her left and runs like a maniac, screaming ‘Satta-Vees Pawale’ (27 steps) in Marathi.
Step 81: She has no clue as to why the old woman is running, or how could someone so old, be so agile. But the direction in which the old woman ran was a problem. Among a rectangular rows of deserted & crumbling down flats there was only one flat, occupied and marked, with bright lights on its front door! Which meant, her mom and Anjali were alone at home, unaware of a crazy old woman dashing towards them. Which is why, she was running behind the old woman!
Step 90: The old woman seemed to be possessed by a demonic entity as she ran like a mad woman towards the house door, screaming her lungs out, saying ‘Mi thambnarrr nahi’ (I won’t stop). And even though she is 9 steps away from her house, she wears the look of horror when she realizes that she cant stop the old woman from entering the house!
Step 99: The old woman reaches the door, pushes the lock open and enters inside the house.
The old woman reaches the door, pushes the lock open and enters inside, immediately locking the door behind her, pushing all her weight against it. In a split second, she feels the thud! The thud of someone banging the door, a familiar voice screaming from the other end, in a high pitch shrill voice… ‘Anjaliiiiiiiiii’
Sobbing to herself, she looked at her 5-year-old granddaughter who had just woken up from her sleep and was cowering in a corner in fear. As she stood physically barricading the door from the evil outside, the old woman asked God, what wrong has she done? Why wont this cursed witch leave her family alone?
3 years ago, on a moonless night not very different than this, the old woman though unwell, was waiting at the door carrying her 2-year old grand daughter Anjali, looking out at the road. In a few seconds, Anjali would see her mother returning home from work and at the turn of step 72 towards the house would make Anjali squeal in joy. And as expected the old woman saw her daughter arrive at the lit up spot of step 72, and stop.
Then in a fraction of a minute, in-front of her own eyes, her daughter was sucked into darkness. All the old woman heard was a long drawn high pitched scream of her daughter, yelling one last time the name of the person she cared for the most, ‘Anjali’.
The old woman tried telling people but nobody believed her. The redevelopment deal was through and most occupants of the society had started shifting out. The new corporate owners of the land dismissed her story fully aware that urban legends of witches and ghouls would only affect their sales. But they did offer her enough money to not file a police case. She had no choice but to take the money so that she could raise her granddaughter, while her daughter became a missing person case.
She thought now that she had the money, she and Anjali can start fresh. But she was wrong. The urban legend came to life as a terrifying reality, for on the nights of Amavasya the witch waited for the old woman, at the start of the road. For her, for Anjali.
And like the old woman always told her daughter growing up, the only way to identify a witch was by looking at her feet. For a witch’s feet is always backwards, toes facing the back and heels facing front. Which is why, on the nights of Amavasya, no matter what, she never looks up and she never stops on the road.
But after today, the old woman had made up her mind. She would leave tomorrow morning itself with her grand daughter. Not just this locality but also this city and take her grand daughter far away.
And as if the entity on the other end of the door had read her mind, the banging stopped. The old woman could here faint sobs from the other end of the door, and then it came. Her daughter’s voice from the other end, a high pitch shrill demonic voice screaming…
Anjali woke up with a start. It was just a nightmare. The same one for the third time in 2 weeks after shifting to this house, but this time around it felt much more real. Wiping the beads of sweat off her forehead, she checked on her 2-year-old daughter Arpana sleeping right next to her.
After making sure of Arpana’s deep slumber, Anjali quietly walked out to the open terrace of her 15th floor flat and lit a cigarette.
This time around it felt much more real. Because this time around she felt she was the lady, the old woman and the granddaughter in the nightmare. She could sense their fears especially that of Anjali’s.
She reminded herself again, it was just a nightmare, a very vivid nightmare. She wasn’t the Anjali from her nightmares. She was a recent divorcee who had left her family and issues back home and shifted to a new city, with a 2-year-old baby. Only she knew the mental and physical stress of doing so, and it was bound to have some side effects.
But now that she has a place of their own, she and Arpana can start fresh. Looking out, she could have seen the skyline of a massive township that lay sprawled in front of her, completely lit like day, even on a moonless night like today. But she wasn’t looking up, she was looking down.
As she puffed away copious amounts of nicotine brooding over her nightmare, her eyes were fixed on something on the black tar road. The name of her building craved on the entrance arch of the security gate, “The Øffering- Future Group”.
The coincidence that the name of her building, The Offering, when translated in Hindi meant either Arpana or Anjali, didn’t bother her at all. What bothered her was the coincidence of the road that she shared with the family in her nightmare.
While coming home from work today, she had to leave the auto at the security gate and walk to the entrance of her building. To keep herself occupied she decided to count the steps it took to walk the road from the security gate to the entrance of her building.
When she reached the entrance, she recounted,
“72 straight steps and a left, 27 straight steps and home.”
–short story @seethingsage