Red Moon Rising
Red Moon Rising17 mins 220 17 mins 220
Agostino stood in the shadows, at the foot of the staircase on the ground floor of his house, and waited. It was a cold, blustery night, a little unusual for October. There had been a heavy shower accompanied by thunder and lightning only a short while before, and the wind was still moving.
He looked through the window at the huge red moon which hung like some hellish orb suspended somewhere between heaven and earth and shivered involuntarily. He had never seen a spooky moon like this before and something about its color and size filled him with a strange, unreasonable dread.
But perhaps not so unreasonable, considering what he was about to do. He gripped the aluminum bat in his hand, the one gifted to him by his former schoolmate, Antonio, who had settled in Canada. He flexed his shoulder muscles and rolled his neck from side to side. This was not going to be a cakewalk. The Tamilian was a squat, powerfully built fellow, and would not go down easily. He was also said to be a ‘Mandrigan’ or practitioner of Black Magic, the Tamilian lady who owned the small stationery shop in Caranzalem, had told him.
“His family is known to do Pilli-Sunniyam,” she had whispered to Agostino, who had stopped by to pick up a marker. “That is a form of witchcraft in Tamil Nadu. His grandfather and ancestors were masters of it. They specialized in horror! ”
Agostino had listened but privately had dismissed it as a load of crap. He was not superstitious himself, had never believed in any ghost or haunted house or paranormal activity, whether Goan or Tamilian and had little patience for those who did.
Murugan did look scary, though, with those piercing eyes and that strange, unnerving stare. A lot of people seemed wary of him, even afraid, though the women seemed fascinated for some reason. There were rumors he had the evil eye. He was a damn good contractor through. His work was first-class, through which he charged a little on the higher side, and he completed the work on schedule.
Anyway, tough or not, Agostinho was confident of the outcome. After all, he had the aluminum bat and the element of surprise, coupled with his own wiry, muscular strength. He was both fisherman and gravedigger, both activities contributing to the ropey muscles in his arms and shoulders and to his flat washboard abs. He would come out on top, no doubt about it.
He waited and thought of Dulcina, his sweet wife of ten years. They had been childhood sweethearts, falling in love while still in their teens and marrying ten years later, despite fierce opposition from her father. He considered her several cuts above Agostino, which indeed she was - Agostino himself was the first to admit that.
A beauty by any standard, with laughing green eyes and a milky-white complexion - she took after her mother who had a bit of Portuguese blood in her - she had a figure that made both male and female heads turn. She was also an intelligent girl and had completed her B.A. in English and History. Agostino himself had dropped out after painfully scraping through his XIIth exams, and had promptly joined his father and uncles in the fishing business. He had been drawn to boats and the sea from his childhood and had often accompanied the menfolk on their fishing expeditions. He was an accomplished swimmer and fisherman.
The grave digging was a side occupation, so to speak, and had come about by accident. Agostino’s next-door neighbor, Rafael, had passed away suddenly one night eight years before. He was the local gravedigger and there was no one to fill his shoes. Agostino had been very fond of Rafael, who used to regale him with ancient folklore, both real and imagined, after his third glass of feni. So he had volunteered to dig the grave. He found that he quite enjoyed the work and accustomed, as he was, to pushing the heavy boats into the sea with the other fishermen and lugging them back to the shore after an expedition, he didn’t find it all that arduous. He also liked the idea that he was rendering a service to the community. So when no-one else stepped forward after another death in the community a month later, Agostino had simply continued doing the job, charging little or nothing for his services.
So here he was now, baseball bat in hand, at the foot of the staircase, waiting for Murugan to emerge. He thought of Murugan and Dulcina in bed together and the bile rose in his throat. With a super-human effort he swallowed it down and shook his head to clear it.
“Poor sap,” he thought savagely,” Poor unsuspecting fool!”
But how could he have suspected? Murugan, a stocky, swarthy man in his late thirties, did not look the type, physically, who was capable of stealing any woman’s affections, let alone someone as pretty and classy-looking as Dulcina. He was well-built and a sharp dresser, but it was his eyes, more than anything else, that drew and held your attention; dark, intent, with tiny red pinpoints, they looked at you, and through you, and swallowed you whole. Agostino was aware of Murugan’s reputation as a womanizer - he was a bachelor and was often referred to as “Quick-gun Murugan” because of the ease with which he found women to share his bed, even some of the local ones - but he had not paid serious attention to the rumors… until now.
It was only over the past two weeks that he had started noticing the sniggers and sidelong glances directed his way at Petwin’s, the bar he frequented regularly near the Caranzalem church, late in the evenings. Suddenly it dawned on him that the smirks and comments - “How’s your pretty wife, Agostino? I hope you’re taking good care of her” - were directed at him for a reason. Finally, he had confronted Julio, the church sacristan, point-blank about the barbs…and Julio had admitted, with downcast face, that he too, had heard the rumors. When Agostino had persisted with his queries, Julio had come up with a name.
At first, Agostino had refused to believe it. Murugan was in the process of laying out the floor in the basement of Agostino’s house. Agostino’s uncle, Tony, a shippy and bachelor to boot, had died, leaving him with a small fortune, which Agostino decided to put to good use. So Murugan was in and out at all odd hours, supervising the work his laborers were doing, even in Agostino’s absence. He found it hard, however, to believe that a woman like Dulcina could find Murugan attractive to the extent of actually sleeping with him. Nonetheless, he had taken to spying on them and his persistence had paid off - he had caught Murugan taking the stairs to his and Dulcina’s bedroom at around 7.00 pm on three occasions. That was the time when Agostino was normally at Petwin’s, until around 9.00 when he returned home for dinner.
That, of course, explained Dulcina’s coldness in bed over the past month or so. She had been rebuffing his advances on one pretext or another and was often fast asleep when he joined her in bed. Agostino hadn’t thought much about it, putting it down to a woman’s moodiness. But now he understood, and the hatred and rage grew in his heart like a living thing until it consumed him entirely. He hated Murugan with every fiber of his being and had to force himself to sound and look normal whenever he spoke to him about the ongoing work in the basement.
Now things had reached a flashpoint. He could wait no longer. Murugan had dug his own grave, literally and figuratively.
Once he had decided he was going to dispose of the Tamilian, Agostino had hatched a plan. He had asked Murugan to instruct his workers to dig a hole in the floor of the basement, deep into the ground below.
“I‘m going to dig a secret tunnel,” he disclosed, ”like some of the old houses used to have - the ones built by the Portuguese and belonging to the nobility. I‘ve always been fascinated by tunnels and this is a great opportunity to build one of my own. Tell your workers to dig the hole. I’ll do the rest when they’re not around. I don’t want anyone to know where the tunnel leads.”
Murugan, who knew Agostino moonlighted as a gravedigger merely nodded and barked orders in Tamil to his laborers. He probably thought of Agostino as a harmless, newly rich eccentric. And so the hole had been dug, sufficiently large and sufficiently deep for Agostino’s purpose.
Agostino braced himself as he heard heavy footsteps descending the staircase. He hefted the bat, spread his feet, and tensed his muscles. He was ready.
Murugan came down one step at a time. He reached the bottom and was about to turn to the left to exit through the door when some sixth sense made him turn around just as Agostino brought the bat down with all his strength. For a split second their eyes locked…and Agostino nearly lost his hold on the bat as those burning eyes looked straight into his own. Murugan’s arm shot up instinctively, partially deflecting the blow so that it glanced heavily off the side of his head. The Tamilian dropped to his knees.
Agostino lifted the bat again. Murugan raised his head and his eyes, with those tiny red pinpoints, seared into Agostino’s. At the last split second before the bat connected with his head, his hand rose – huge, black, the biggest hand Agostino had ever seen, more like a bear’s paw than a human hand and once again the blow struck the side of his head. He fell again, heavily, one knee folding up, so that he was now resting on his side.
As Agostino raised the bat again, Murugan somehow dragged himself up, so that he was kneeling as before, and shook his head from side to side to clear it. Agostino brought the bat down, panting with fear and rage. Again the arm rose – but Murugan was stunned by the previous blows and failed this time to deflect the downward swing.
The bat smashed onto his head, and he fell and lay sideways. Panting heavily, Agostino looked down. He could not believe his eyes when that huge black paw flapped up and fastened onto his ankle and the two tiny orbs of red light fastened onto his own.
Desperately he bent down and tried to pry those fingers - thick as bananas - away. They were like iron bands. He brought the bat down again. Murugan’s fingers relaxed their grip and he lay still. Surely the man was unconscious, thought Agostino. No-one could possibly absorb so many blows to his skull and still be alert. But he had underestimated the Tamilian. To his shock and horror, Murugan turned, and that huge paw slithered across the floor towards Agostino’s foot.
Looking around desperately he glimpsed an ax – a new one he had bought just the week before - propped against the wall two paces away. Lunging towards it he snatched it up and brought it down with all his force. It took seven blows before he could sever the hand from the arm…and during this time, not a sound, not even a whimper, escaped the Tamilian’s throat. But those burning eyes never left his own for even an instant.
Dropping the ax, Agostino grabbed the bat. Gritting his teeth, he brought it down again and again and again, until Murugan’s head was a smashed and bloodied mess. Then he stepped away from the horror scene and vomited violently on the ground. Throwing the bat aside, he collapsed and sat leaning against the wall, panting heavily, his face and clothes sodden with sweat. A cold chill permeated his entire body. His eyes were drawn to the open window, to that massive red orb in the sky, and once again he was filled with dread. He raised himself to his knees and retched again, a thin slime rising from his throat.
For how long he sat there, he didn’t know. He had no fear that the struggle might have been heard. Dulcina always fell into a deep sleep after sex - “the sleep of the dead,” he used to call it jokingly - and there was no-one else in the house. Besides, the cottage was secluded, surrounded by fields on two sides and a marshy bog on the third. No, he was safe…for the moment.
Finally, he got up. Bending down, he grasped Murugan by the ankles and dragged the body forward towards the steps that led to the basement. Then he started down the stairs, hearing the thud-thud-thud of the head bumping against each step as he dragged the body down. Gritting his teeth and averting his eyes from the corpse’s face, he carried on until he had reached the bottom.
Dropping his grip on Murugan’s ankles he straightened up, and arched and rubbed his aching back. He was panting again from the exertion and took a few moments to catch his breath. His eyes were drawn inexorably to Murugan’s face and he recoiled and cried out in fear. The eyes were wide open and staring straight at him; even death, it seemed, had not doused the light in them.
Suppressing the desire to run up the stairs and out of the house, he tore his gaze away, picked up an old sack lying nearby, and threw it over the Tamilian’s face, covering it. Then grabbing the body by the ankles again, he dragged it towards the gaping hole in the corner of the room, the hole he had dug expressly for this purpose. Straddling the pit, he grabbed the body under the armpits, tipping it headfast into the hole. Slowly, very slowly, Murugan’s body dropped into the pit, and Agostino sank down on the floor, breathing heavily, his clothes soaked with sweat.
He would have to cover the hole. But for now, he was completely spent and badly needed a drink. Getting up, he sluiced his face with water from the hose connected to the tap nearby, gulping down copious draughts of water. He drank and drank, as he had never drunk before. Then he combed his hair back with his fingers and mounted the stairs.
Filling a bucket with water from the tap, he carried it to the spot where he had rained the last deadly blows on Murugan’s head and poured it onto the ground to wash away the bloodstains. It took six buckets, a large bottle of Dettol antiseptic liquid, and a thick mop to clean the blood and gore away. By the time he had finished, he was trembling with exhaustion.
He had consciously avoided looking at that huge black paw lying on the floor. Now he steeled himself and with a stick-broom in one hand and dustpan in the other, he approached it cautiously. Whether it was a trick of the light or not he did not know, but the fingers seemed to clench and unclench themselves as he came closer. Seized with terror, he dropped broom and dustpan and bolted out of the house.
The moon hung low in the sky, a perfectly circular, deep red orb, a moon such as he had never seen before. The feeling of dread came down on him again, covering him like a shroud. He took to his heels, running like a madman, looking over his shoulder every few yards. In two minutes flat he had reached the bar. It was still open, though there were just three customers left.
“What’s the matter with you? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Luis, the barman said, staring at him, glass in hand, a dishcloth in the other.
“Give me a drink, for God’s sake,” Agostino mumbled, sinking into a chair at a table far from the other patrons. He swallowed the feni down in one gulp and held out his glass for another. After three drinks he felt better, the liquor burning a comforting path into his belly. But he was ravenously hungry.
“Get me something to eat,” he called out to Luis, “something solid, not bloody bhiknas, for Christ’s sake!” He wasn’t in the mood for peanuts.
Silently, sensing his mood, Luis brought him a plate of chicken xacuti and two paos, which Agostino wolfed down greedily. He asked for another. After the second plate and with four drinks under his belt, he felt more human. Chiding himself for his unreasonable fear, he rose from the table, paid Luis, and walked out into the night.
The moon hung over him, a deep blood red, seeming to follow him every step of the way. Agostino thought of Murugan’s eyes and shivered involuntarily. He quickened his pace.
Reaching the house, he left himself in and forced himself to descend the steps to the basement...then paused. The realization hit him that he didn’t have the stomach just then for what still needed to be done. Besides, he was exhausted to the point of collapse. He would sleep, rise early, and finish the job before Dulcina awoke. She was a notoriously late riser. Murugan’s workers had gone to their native place for Diwali, and would not be back for the next three to four days.
He climbed the steps to the guest room, the room he slept in when Dulcina was particularly cranky and not in the mood for love-making, or after they’d had a particularly nasty quarrel.
He had been sleeping in that room now for the past two weeks, he reflected sourly, the longest time they’d slept apart since they were married. Oh well, things will change, he thought, now that Murugan is out of the way.
Entering the room, he threw himself onto the bed fully clothed and fell into a deep slumber.
He awoke around two hours later, with a raging thirst. The room was stiflingly hot, despite the fan moving at full speed. He looked around for the water bottle he usually kept next to the bed, then realized he had forgotten to carry a fresh one upstairs. The thought of going down again filled him with dread. He stepped into the attached bathroom, turned on the tap, and drank copiously.
He stumbled back to the bed. The heat was unbearable, the room seems to close in on him like the walls of a prison cell. He tore off his clothes until he was stark naked. Turning to the window, he flung it open and recoiled at the sight of the gigantic red super-moon. Breathing deeply, he threw himself down on the bed and tried to sleep.
Finally, he drifted off into a troubled, uneasy slumber, filled with terrifyingly disjointed images and the sound of maniacal laughter. He dreamt of that massive, severed paw still lying on the floor downstairs - he had completely forgotten about it. He dreamt of the huge red moon low down in the sky. The moon split into two smaller moons, which came together in a dark, bestial face -the face of Murugan. He came awake with a start, shivering uncontrollably. There was a chill in the air, colder than any winter he had lived through, even the one he had experienced as a school-boy in Himachal Pradesh. A greyish-white fog seemed to permeate the room, rendering the furniture and objects around him almost indistinguishable. And far off, but coming closer, he heard the sound of demonic laughter, a sound that froze the blood in his veins.
He sat up in bed, reaching desperately for his clothes. His hands would not move. He tried to swing his legs off the bed. His legs would not move. In his mind, he heard the voice of the Tamilian lady speaking.
“They say he is Mandrigan, one who practices Black Magic...His family is known to do Pilli-Suniyam, a form of witchcraft in Tamil Nadu…His ancestors were masters of it.”
A feeling of horror descended on him, such as he had never known. He opened his mouth to scream for help. No sound came out. He sat on the bed, rooted to the spot, unable to move.
And along with that crazed laughter, he heard another sound - a rending, tearing noise as though something or someone was forcing its way through… through concrete, through steel, through anything in its path.
Agostino simply sat there, like a log of wood, unable even to move his head from side to side. His eyes were rooted to a spot in front of him - to the huge red moon now right outside the open window, so low and so large it seemed to fill the entire space.
The laughter was louder now, a sound straight from hell, the rending, tearing noise much closer. Agostino knew he should move, he should get off the bed and RUN…but he sat there, rooted to the spot, his eyes almost starting out of his head in fear and horror.
Then it was too late. The rending sound reached a crescendo, as something forced its way through the floor below the bed, and then through the bed itself - an enormous black claw, more like the paw of a beast than anything human - a paw attached to half an arm.
The claw hung in the air before Agostino’s terrified eyes, before grasping him by the throat, slowly, inexorably choking the life out of him. Agostino could do nothing; he was paralyzed, unable even to lift his hands up to try and pry those thick, steely fingers away.
The last thing he saw or thought he did, before he died, was that huge red moon entering his room through the open window and splitting into two, before coming together in the dark, bestial face of Murugan.
In the bedroom at the other end of the corridor, Dulcina awoke. She was cold. She sat up in bed and hugged the flimsy nightdress to her curvaceous body. The window facing the bed was open, the soft, white curtains billowing in the breeze. She swung her legs off the bed and walked to the window to close it. She looked up at the sky. It was a dark, moonless night. A pity. She rather liked the moon.
Last night, there had been one. Round and yellow, like a ball of cheese. But not tonight.
A cold breeze caressed her neck. She shivered.