The village maidaan was chock-a-block with people. Vendors shouted until they went hoarse, children clamoured, parents got angry and animals watched the mad mob of humanity with placid unconcern. The sweet shops did brisk business as did the man spinning the creaking handle of the uncomplicated, rustic rides. A single, bony brown horse trotted up and down a narrow path carrying sun-browned children on its back. Girls ran to the bangle shops hand in hand, ribbons fluttering like streamers from their well-oiled, tightly plaited black hair. Boys with a thin trace of hair on their upper lip, flattering themselves on their imminent manhood, strutted around with their broad-chested fathers beside the cattle sheds, pretending to understand the nuances of trade. A few romances were begun; some hearts broken. In the midst of this colourful rural confusion sauntered a young woman with a camera, trying to capture the essence of a fair in an ordinary Indian village.
After a somewhat sceptical lunch at a tiny shop in the dusty streets of the nearby town, for she trusted the food stalls at the fair even less, Meeta set off homeward. Once outside the town, she heaved a sigh of relief. The green fields soaked in the afternoon sunshine were a refreshing change from the narrow alleyways and close, crumbling buildings of the nondescript town. As she walked towards the hillside cottage where she was staying while she finished her assignment in the Himalayan town, the sky darkened and a light rain began to fall. The last few hundred metres home were a dash in the chilling rain, but soon Meeta found herself in the warm comforts of neat little Hazel Cottage.
Dry and comfortable, Meeta sat down by a window to enjoy the hilly vista. Green mountains rolled away in the distance, and a slight mist was beginning to settle on them as night crept in. Meeta had enjoyed every sunrise and sunset here, and was quite disappointed that the rain wouldn’t let her watch the exquisite purple and orange tints of the sky as the sun dipped from view into the distant mountains. She slipped into a reverie, imagining a clear blue lake in the valley that the cottage overlooked, and a lone bagpiper appearing on the nearest hill, serenading her with his music and wanting to take her away to his Highland home.
‘There is no place quite as beautiful as this,’ thought Meeta. ‘I wonder why nobody wanted to rent it.’ She had asked the agent who had rented out the cottage to her why it had lain empty so long, but he hadn’t been able to give her a clear answer. Being neither suspicious nor an heiress, she had snapped up the deal, for it suited her budget extremely well, and was exactly what satisfied her romantic soul. ‘I shall talk to the gardener tomorrow and see if he can tell me something useful.’
The next morning, after her customary salute to the sun, Meeta awaited the gardener’s arrival while she busied herself with an article for her magazine. At half-past eight, the small, wizened man arrived, his face contorted with the morning chill, a torn woollen cap thrown over his grey head. Meeta waited while he began digging and uprooting, and went up to him.
"Nice morning, isn’t it?"
The gardener looked up sullenly. "Nice enough for those who don’t have to work."
Meeta refrained from contradicting that assumption, because she understood that in the eyes of this hard-working son of the soil, any labour that was not physically strenuous was no work at all.
"Umm…I’d like to ask you something," ventured Meeta hesitantly.
The gardener merely grunted in response.
Slightly put off by his sullen taciturnity, yet aware that it wasn’t a sign of hostility, Meeta continued. "Would you be so kind as to tell me why this lovely little cottage has lain uninhabited for so long?"
"Because it is haunted."
Meeta did not know how to react to this terse statement. It was uttered with a conviction that surprised her because of the absurdity of what it meant.
"Haunted? What do you mean?" Meeta asked in an incredulous tone.
The gardener, who had been going on with his work during the conversation, now stopped digging and turned to Meeta. "Do you think the British left India?"
Meeta could not quite understand where the conversation was going. However, eager to ferret out as much information as she could from the old gardener, she merely nodded.
"Not all of them did." He gave her a glance that said he wouldn’t welcome any more inquisitive questions from her, and returned to his work.
Bemused, Meeta went back into the house. She felt a sudden chill as she stood in the centre of the small living room, and a sudden, inexplicable curiosity to explore the cottage came upon her. A narrow aisle opened into the bedroom, and further down, the kitchen. Meeta walked into the bedroom and looked around. Besides an ancient double bed and a teak cupboard, it held a small writing table. Meeta had already looked in the cupboard thoroughly before putting her clothes away, for fear of pests, and knew there was nothing of interest there. She turned to the desk. It bore some of her books and papers. The drawer was locked. She had tried to open it on the day of her arrival, but finding it locked, and being in a hurry, had given it up for later. Now, pulling out the bunch of keys she had been given, she tried every single one of them until she found the one that unlocked the drawer. She slid it open.
The drawer held a single satin glove. Now stained with age, in its better days it had been a very pretty lilac. Meeta picked it up carefully. It wasn’t just age that caused the stain, but a splash of coffee or something else that had probably spilt on the tiny hand that must have worn it once.
"What a queer place for a glove! And not even a pair." She replaced the glove carefully and locked the drawer.
Meeta thought about what the gardener had told her. She dismissed his idea as an unreasonable fancy. She decided to go back to work and clear her head of all the strange thoughts that had been occupying it this past hour. "There is no mystery here, after all. This cottage is at quite a distance from the town. Not many houses in the vicinity, either. Quite likely nobody wanted to stay here."
Meeta went for a walk in the evening. The rain clouds had cleared away and the sky was streaked with sun-splashed rivers of pink. A fresh breeze blew across her face and through her hair, rejuvenating her. She walked towards the edge of a cliff and looked out at the vast valley spread underneath. The lights were coming on in the towns and twinkled like clusters of stars against the silhouetted mountains.
A sudden strong scent wafted towards her, borne by the gentle evening wind. It wasn’t unpleasant; it reminded her of delicately scented flowers, like a mix of everything that was dainty and feminine.
"Good evening." A voice like the tinkle of silver bells spoke over the whisper of the wind. Meeta turned to behold a petite, neatly dressed young woman, her hands wrapped tight inside her shawl. "You are the new tenant of Hazel Cottage, I presume?"
Meeta stared at the newcomer. She was beautiful, with creamy white skin and expressive light brown eyes. Then, remembering her manners, she smiled. "Yes, I am."
"It is good to have that place tenanted again. Such a shame that a lovely house like that should lie unused."
"Do you know anything about it?" Meeta asked eagerly, her curiosity whetted.
"Oh yes, I do. It’s a famous story…anybody here would tell you. The house was a wedding gift to a young English bride from her parents. A pretty, good-natured girl was Louisa- wouldn’t hurt a fly. She had a husband who loved her more than his life, and they were a very happy couple. She was very possessive, though- she guarded the house preciously, and would not let anybody in. She believed the house was inhabited by their own souls and spirits, and never took very kindly to anybody else moving in, even for a couple of days. When she died, her husband moved back to England. The house has been inhabited once or twice since, but never for long periods."
The woman looked into the distance. "Louisa detested strangers." Something in the tone she said it in sent a shiver down Meeta’s spine. She turned over all that she had just heard in her mind. After a while she spoke, rather uncertainly.
"The gardener told me something rather strange today- that the house was haunted. I mean, who believes in ghosts now?"
The woman turned to Meeta with an expression she couldn’t read. "Indeed…nobody does."
A few more minutes of silence ensued, and the woman spoke again. "I must be leaving now. Good night." She smiled and walked away. Meeta watched as she drew out her hands and settled her shawl over her shoulders, gradually fading into the distance. Something about her hands struck Meeta as weird, but a piercing cry drew her attention away. Meeta’s heart skipped a beat- a shadowy form flew by.
"It is just an owl…what are you doing here so late, anyway? Go home." Meeta heard the raspy voice of the gardener. He shuffled past her, carrying a basketful of herbs he had collected in the hills.
Meeta slept fitfully that night. Though sleep overcame her as soon as she lay down, it was a disturbed slumber. Strange dreams floated through her mind- she saw a pair of dainty hands, empty desk drawers, old gardeners. A sudden thud awoke her, and she sat up in bed. The windows were open and the thin muslin curtains bobbed cheerfully as the wind swirled in through the windows. Something disturbed her, but she couldn’t make out what it was.
Her mind in a muddle, Meeta stumbled out of bed. She couldn’t think- but a nerve throbbed and haphazard images flew through her head. From the corner of her eye, she caught a movement somewhere in the room. She turned around wildly, and saw the drawer of the desk hanging precariously from its niche. She rushed up to it and stared into it. It was empty.
Had an intruder broken in? Was she being robbed? She turned over her pillow. Her bunch of keys, the only bunch for this cottage as the agent had assured her, was still there. Who had opened the drawer? Questions chased one another through Meeta’s mind and, feeling faint and helpless as if some preternatural force were choking her, she made her way to the open window. A blast of cold air hit her hard, and her senses immediately seemed to restore themselves. She became aware of a lingering scent- she knew it…it was the perfume of the woman she had met that evening on the cliff.
The moon, until now veiled by a solitary cloud, broke out into the dark sky and shone on the garden in full splendour. A spectral figure stood a few metres away from the window. The posture was familiar, as was the fabric around its shoulders. Meeta watched horrified. It was the same woman! And in a flash, something struck her. She had watched her arrange her shawl on the cliff- only one hand had been gloved. Meeta tried to move, to scream- but her senses were paralysed.
Now, as Meeta’s horror-struck eyes reluctantly watched, the diaphanous hands of the woman pulled on a glove- a coffee-stained, lilac glove. The face looked up, hazel eyes piercingly trained on Meeta’s stunned face, a sinister smile hovering about the full lips. The spectral woman then turned and walked on straight through the wooden gate, disappearing over the side of the hill.
Meeta packed up and moved into a hotel in town early the next morning. Nobody there had ever seen the fair-skinned woman or the old gardener. Legends abounded, but nobody tried to prove them right, for Hazel Cottage was haunted.
A year later, a young botanist rented Hazel Cottage. Exploring the house on his first day there, he unlocked the drawer of the writing desk.
An old, coffee-stained lilac glove rested in it.