Sweet Dreams19 mins 177 19 mins 177
One black sheep can do a lot of harm. One black shepherd can wreak irreparable damage. And always, it is the innocent who suffers - both sheep and shepherds. It is the innocent who pays the price.
It remembers. It remembers. Many years have passed, but it remembers.
It flits out of the darkness, a beast on two legs; neither man nor woman, neither ghost nor ghoul, but something in between. It darts out of the shadows, a streak of lightning, and STRIKES – once, twice, three times, and then again and again and again, in a frenzy of passion, the knife in its claws moving up and down, up and down, in a swift, graceful, silver arc, until the dark-robed figure lies supine at its feet, bloodied, broken and still.
It is neither man nor woman, but at this moment, and at all such moments, a friend, a living, breathing monster with a scary face. A horror. This THING crouches, and stares into the dead, destroyed face of its victim; moves closer, and then closer still. Its claw slides under the dead man’s chin, it tilts the head upward gently and kisses the victim’s throat...
“Sweet dreams, my child,” it whispers, “Sweet dreams...”
His Grace, the Most Reverend Patrick O’Reilly, Archbishop of Shaughnessy, Ireland, gazed into the mirror and adjusted the elegant mauve sash of his black cassock. A very smart cassock, with mauve piping and matching buttons. He patted his belly self-consciously, turned, and looked at himself sideways in the mirror.
Yes, he admitted to himself ruefully, he had indeed put on a bit of weight. More than a bit, actually. He blamed it on the Christmas goodies – the sweet, multi-layered bebinca, the rich, toffee-like dodol, the soft, flaky doce that melted in the mouth, the crisp, golden-brown kulkuls, the coconutty, crunchy neurons, the delicately flavoured mandares ... there were sweets and there were sweets, but the ones he had sampled in Goa this Christmas – first at the Archbishop’s Palace in Panjim, and nowhere, at St. Lauren’s Convent in Abolim - were a class apart, and His Grace quite simply lacked the will power to say no.
Everyone has at least one weakness, and His Grace’s sweet tooth was very definitely his Achilles heel. He didn’t have three chins as yet, however, just two – Sister Bridget was wrong about that, the mirror didn’t lie, maybe she was just taking the mickey out of him. He remembered the merry glint in her eye as she poked him in the belly and remarked, “You’re looking very prosperous, Pat. Three chins, no less!” No-one else would have dared, but they went back a long way, he and Bridget – classmates in Shaughnessy, and lifelong friends from then onwards. They had always got along famously and had kept in touch over the years. Bridget had an outrageously irreverent sense of humor, one that appealed to his own quirky wit and his ability to see the ridiculous in everything that happened.
Everything ... except this string of brutal murders, going back two years and covering three states – Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha. A horror story, the papers called it. Three Catholic priests, one in each state, had been savagely murdered in a series of crimes. Crimes that had shaken the nation, particularly the Christian community. Some Catholics were of the opinion that they were being targeted by religious fundamentalists from another faith, a perception fuelled by certain segments of the media.
Two years is a rather long time for a murderer or murderers to remain at large; a long time for a string of brutal killings to remain unsolved. Each of the victims had been in his mid to late fifties; each had been killed by a number of thrusts inflicted by a very sharp instrument such as a long-bladed knife, in the back, chest, belly, and groin. Each had been castrated – their genitals hacked off – and their throats torn open by a set of human teeth. Spooky, to say the least.
Was the murderer human or a vampire? The unprecedented savagery of the killings and the manner in which the victims had had their genitals amputated and their throats ripped out – all these indicated the work of a madman, a psychopath or a vampire, someone not entirely human; a fiend with a grouse – to put it mildly – against priests in particular and perhaps Catholics in general.
How is it that the murderer, or murderers, had remained at large for almost two years, mused the Most Reverend Patrick O’Reilly, as he tightened the sash around his protuberant belly and gazed at his reflection in the mirror? A round, pink face gazed back at him, topped by a wisp of curly blond hair. Truth to tell, as his ten-year-old niece had remarked, he looked very much like Mr. Pinkwhistle, one of Enid Blyton’s beloved characters.
“Pink Pudding” indeed, he thought – that was the nickname bestowed on him by his affectionate parishioners back home, a sobriquet gleefully taken up and whispered behind his back by the novices at St. Lauren’s, the convent where he was now staying, in the tiny, still-verdant Goan village of Abolim. He was here as a special invitee of the Superior, Sister Bridget, a very close friend whom he had known since kindergarten.
He would have to embark on a strict diet and exercise regimen, His Grace admitted gloomily to himself, there was really no other choice. His doctor back in Ireland – a strict, very fit, a no-nonsense man in his late fifties who looked fifteen years younger and jogged six kilometers a day – had warned him several times, the last one being the day before his departure for India.
“Be careful, Pat” he had admonished him – they, too, had been classmates at St. Peter’s – wagging his finger in the archbishop’s face, “Not even God will be able to protect you if you carry on like this. You eat like a pig, pardon the expression, and get hardly any exercise. How long do you think you’ll last at this rate?”
Well, the spacious grounds of St. Lauren’s were certainly a Godsend, were he inclined to work off his Christmas indulgences during the remainder of his visit to Goa. A thirty-minute walk each morning, and another one every evening, that was the remedy prescribed by the physician. The problem was His Grace detested any form of exercise.
It – neither man nor woman, not ghost nor ghoul – moves easily out of the shadows and into the light, becoming once more a living, breathing, perfectly normal human being, not the unspeakable Thing it had become when the darkness had closed in and taken over, permeating its entire being. It is now – for a while, at least – a person like any other. It walks on two legs, upright – not crouching in the shadows; it smiles and laughs like the others, that horrible, snarling rictus no longer evident, as it had been when the knife rose up and slashed down, up and down, a hundred times. The face is calm and at peace; no longer a mask of fury as on those nights at Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha.
It hums a tune while it works; a joyful song, always a cheerful one. It bobs its head in greeting when it sees someone it knows; it throws back its head and laughs uproariously at a joke someone has made ... it wipes the sweat from its brow with the back of its sleeve as it focuses on its job... it washes its hands at the sink and wipes them on a small hand towel. It is as normal as you and me, as perfectly normal as all the others. It is now one of them, its blood lust temporarily satiated until the moon waxes and wanes, and the thick, heavy darkness closes in once again, enveloping the thing in a blanket of fog. It is then that the mind becomes the mind of a monster, then that the thing has to summon all its will power to smile and laugh and bob its head in greeting; to hum a tune and sway in time to the music drifting in from the speakers; to wash its hands at the sink and dry them on a towel. As if nothing has happened. As if it were a normal human being and not the monster it is becoming.
“I insist, Bridget,” said the archbishop, as he stepped out of his room that evening, “I simply have to meet the magicians who’ve conjured up all those delectable dishes I’ve sampled these past few days. A wee bit too spicy for my poor, bland Irish tongue, perhaps ... but nonetheless, delicious!”
“This way, Pat,” said Sister Bridget, as she led the Most Reverend Patrick O’Reilly and his secretary, Father Derry, down the stairs. She was a tall, stately woman in her late fifties, still very fit, with a strong face and figure and a perpetual twinkle in her eye.
“Mind your step, Your Grace. We don’t want to go bouncing down the stairs, now, do we?” she added, the glint in her eye more pronounced than ever.
“Alright, Bridget, you’ve made your point,” conceded His Grace, his hands raised in surrender, “Starting Monday, I shall wake up half an hour earlier and take a stroll on the grounds.”
“And another thirty minutes in the evening, Your Grace,” interjected Father Derry, a scholarly-looking man in his mid-thirties, struggling to keep a straight face.
“And less of the bebinca and dodol, Pat” – this from Sister Bridget – “You’ve had enough to last a lifetime!”
“Is it my fault that your parishioners, and the parents of your novices, came bearing gifts like the Magi?” demanded His Grace, “You should have given them away, instead of putting them on the table where I could see them. What did you expect me to do? Besides, it would have been an insult to refuse,” and he grinned, the gleam in his eye matching her own.
“Magi or not, Patrick, there will be no more Christmas sweets for you this year,” Sister Bridget said firmly, “If you’re going to die of a stroke, it won’t be on my property. You can always visit next Christmas, there’ll be a fresh supply then.”
“You know very well I won’t be coming next year,” His Grace said gloomily, “But thanks for inviting me to your Centenary celebrations. This was the best Christmas I’ve had in years.” And he patted his belly nostalgically.
“This way, Pat,” said Sister Bridget again, steering him and Father Derry into the refectory, and from there into the large, airy kitchen, “Let me introduce you to the busy bees of St. Lauren’s kitchen. They love their work, they really do.”
It remembers. It remembers. Many years have passed, but it remembers. Remembers the man in the dark cassock those many years ago, and the unspeakable things he had done to it. How, at the end of every ‘session’, he would bend down and kiss its throat.
“Sweet dreams, my child; sweet dreams,” he would say, those cold, grey eyes boring into its own. And then, in that same quiet, deadly tone – “If you tell anyone what happened, I’ll cut your throat.”
Its flesh crawls at the memory, and a hot flush of shame suffuses its cheeks. Then the anger takes over, a black, sweeping tide of rage, and it clenches its fists and grinds its teeth and makes an effort to smile, and nod, and carry on as if nothing has happened. But it remembers. And it neither forgives nor forgets.
It hides in the shadows, quietly and patiently. Waiting for its prey. This time in Odisha. It knows he will come. Two dark-robed figures pass by in animated conversation, but the Thing stays in the shadows. It does not move. Or make a sound. It clutches the sharp, long-bladed knife in its fist, balances on the balls of its feet, and it waits. It feels the darkness, like a thick, heavy blanket, inside its head and in every part of its body. Still, it waits, breathing shallowly, silent as the grave. It can feel the power in its arms, in its legs, in the supple joints of its body. The darkness gives it strength. Super-human strength. Monstrous strength.
Suddenly it stiffens, as a figure appears in the distance. Father Clifford da Silva, Rector of St. Paul’s, walks slowly from the seminary to where the Thing lies, crouching in the shadows of one of the bushes bordering the grounds. A dark-robed figure, walking slowly, all by himself, reading from a book – The Holy Bible – and forming the words with his lips, slowly and prayerfully. Taking slow, measured steps; walking with calm, unhurried tread along the path close to where the Thing waits, crouching in the shadows.
The moon shines down, full, refulgent. There’s not a soul around, save the Thing, and the dark-cassocked figure.
Father Clifford passes by, his eyes fixed on the twenty-seventh Psalm. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” he mouths. And the Thing leaps. The knife raised high, slicing downward, deep into the back of the clergyman.
“Aaaaaaaahh!” cries the Rector, a groan drawn from the depths of his soul, stumbling to his knees with the shock. Again and again, the knife slashes down with almost metronomic regularity, digging deep into the back; and then when the priest lies supine on the ground, into the chest, stomach, and groin. Again and again and again, long after the priest is dead, his unseeing eyes gazing into eternity.
The Thing is panting now, its breath quick and heavy. It looks around furtively and wipes the blade, slick with the priest’s blood, on the grass, silver in the moonlight.
It leans close; and closer still. Looks into the dead, unseeing eyes, and kisses the throat.
“Sweet dreams, my child,” it whispers, “Sweet dreams.”
Now, after eight months, the darkness is closing in again, like a twilight fog. But this is a thick, dark haze that only it – the Thing – can see. Or feel. It knows when it is coming, it senses it, it can feel it in its bones, it KNOWS. And it waits. Waits for the blackness to seep into the skin, UNDER the skin, into its pores, under the fingernails, inside the joints, the eyes and ears, inside each strand of hair, until it – the Thing – becomes the darkness itself.
And all the while it smiles and laughs, and hums softly under its breath, and mouths the words of the hymns floating in from the speakers as it works.
“God’s love is so wonderful” go this particular hymn, “So high you can’t get over it ...” It’s the Thing’s favorite hymn. It remembers the actions it used to perform with the other children, as the hymn was played or sung by Sister Helena or Teacher Maura.
“O wonderful love!” it sings and smiles at the person on its right, who smiles right back. But the darkness has already taken over.
One by one, His Grace is introduced to the busy bees of St. Lauren’s kitchen.
“This is Sister Claire,” declares the Superior, indicating a large, red-faced, cheerful-looking Irish nun wielding a skillet, her forehead shining with perspiration.” And that is Sister Helena, there in the corner,” pointing to a small, dark nun with bright eyes and a bird-like face, washing her hands at the sink.
“This is Quiteria. She’s been with us for forty years,” indicating a toothless old crone who, flustered at meeting so eminent a personality, comes forward hurriedly, wiping her hands on her apron and curtsies before His Grace, kissing the proffered hand.
“And this is Sister Matilda,” and the archbishop looks into the smiling face of a robust, striking young novice with floury hands, who bobs her head in greeting.
“She’s a sportswoman,” announces Sister Bridget, who used to be a champion athlete herself, “Plays badminton and basketball. Not to mention Taekwondo; she was champion in her weight category three years running. She was one of the youngest to join us. She’s also an excellent cook.”
“Wait till you taste our sorpotel, Your Grace,” Matilda quips, her eyes twinkling.
“I can’t wait,” sighs Father O’Reilly, conscious that his stomach has started rumbling again, fuelled, no doubt, by the delicious smells wafting around the kitchen.
“This is Habiba Bibi,” says Sister Bridget, pointing out a delicate, pretty young girl with a heart-shaped face, her eyes shining with mischief, “Her parents were killed in a train accident when she was a baby. Her grandmother, who used to work here, entrusted her to us to look after. She died shortly afterward. Habiba’s one of us now; she was baptized long ago.”
Habiba bends to kiss His Grace’s ring. “I made the sannas,” she announces proudly.
“I’ll be sure to have several,” Father Patrick says fervently, turning to the next person in line.
“This is Andre,” announces Sister Bridget, and a slim, rather winsome young lad comes forward shyly, “He’s our Jack-of-all-trades. There’s nothing he can’t put his hand to cooking, gardening, plumbing, electronics – you name it. He’s a whiz at everything, especially computers. Andre’s just finished his XII. He wants to be a software engineer.”
Later, she tells the archbishop privately that Andre, like Habiba, has been with them since he was a toddler, his mother having died of jaundice when he was a baby. His father, a shiftless alcoholic, with no immediate family of his own, had promptly handed Andre over to the sisters of St. Lauren’s and vanished, never to be heard from again.
“And last, but not the least,” says Sister Bridget, indicating the last occupant in the room, “Is Antoinette, our chef par excellence. She’s been with us for the past twenty years.”
A dark, scowling, strongly built woman in her late thirties steps forward, a meat cleaver clutched in her fist, and His Grace takes an involuntary step backward; at which everyone bursts out laughing ... except Antoinette, the scowl never leaving her face, her burning eyes fixed firmly on the archbishop’s face.
“For heaven’s sake, Antoinette, put that cleaver down,” says the Superior good-naturedly, taking the offending object from Antoinette’s unresisting fingers.
Later she tells His Grace – “Antoinette is a rather unhappy soul. She was sixteen when she was abandoned by her boyfriend, a married man in his thirties; she was pregnant at the time. Her parents threw her out. She tried to commit suicide; survived, but lost the baby. We took her in, and she’s been with ever since. She hardly ever speaks and hardly ever smiles; keeps to herself most of the time, but is an excellent worker and a very fine cook.”
Just before they leave the kitchen, she says, with a sweep of her hand, encompassing Antoinette, Andre, Habiba, and Matilda – “This is our traveling circus; they’ve been to seven states over the past two and a half years – Nagpur, Bihar, Jharkhand, Hyderabad, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha. We have convents in all of these places.”
“Mass is at 9.30 tomorrow morning,” she reminds him, after an excellent dinner that evening. His Grace’s mouth still burns from the sorpotel, and the sannas were indeed quite delicious.
“Good night, Patrick, and sweet dreams.”
His Grace huffs and puffs, as he mounts the stairs to his room. Monday morning, he vows to himself, I shall get up half an hour earlier and go for a brisk walk. After all, what’s the point of enjoying your food so much if you’re not going to be around to taste it?
But in the meanwhile, something is bothering the archbishop, nagging at him in much the same way as wives tend to nag their husbands when they’ve had one too many. What is it that disturbs him so, clutching at him with cold fingers even as he brushes his teeth, and slips into his pajamas, and climbs into his bed? Something Sister Bridget had said about the traveling circus and the trips to various states in India. But…what?
Circuses have clowns, don’t they? And His Grace has always felt uneasy about clowns ever since the funniest man in his neighborhood back home shot himself in the head one fine morning. Just like that, out of the blue. His Grace had been a nipper then. Does he remember asking his dad why did that nice, funny Mr. Morris shoot himself like that? He had been the clown at every function, the life of every party. His dad had muttered something about a smile masking a thousand hurts and left it at that. But His Grace had never looked at clowns the same way again. He felt perhaps they were hiding something. Was there a clown in this circus, he wondered.
It melts into the shadows, becoming once more a part of the darkness. Or is the darkness a part of it? No matter. The knife has been carefully honed, sharpened to a fault. The Thing is ready. It crouches outside the bedroom window, silent as the grave. The prey is already here.
His Grace cannot sleep. Something keeps nagging him. He tosses and turns, finally drifting off into an uneasy slumber.
He wakes up in terror, sitting bolt upright, dreaming of Antoinette’s dark, scowling face, the meat cleaver held high above her head. His face is bathed in perspiration, his breathing shallow and labored.
After a time he can breathe normally, and Father Patrick – he still thinks of himself as a simple priest rather than an archbishop – puts his head back on the pillow and tries once again to sleep. Tomorrow is the big day – the Centenary of St. Lauren’s. Mass at 9.30 am. But his mind is filled with faces, and of newspaper reports of gruesome murders, and of places in India he has heard of but never been to. Places like Nagpur, Bihar, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha ... he drifts off again.
He dreams of the cooks and nuns he has met in St. Lauren’s kitchen the previous day. He sees the strong young body and cheerful visage of Sister Matilda; the sullen expression and brawny arms of poor Antoinette, still grieving over the loss of her unborn child; the mischievous eyes and heart-shaped face of Habiba Bibi; and the slim figure and androgynous features of young Andre.
He remembers...oh God, “the traveling circus”...Nagpur, Bihar, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha ... now in Goa.
He recalls the newspaper reports – the killings that had occurred in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha. And a voice screams inside his head – “It is here! The clown is here!”
He wakes up with a start, dreaming again of Antoinette and the meat cleaver held high above her head. He is conscious of a heavyweight on his belly. The room is dark, save for the soft, burning light of the little Mother Mary night lamp right next to his bed. Somebody is singing softly...a plaintive melody that sounds familiar, and at the same time different - a happy song is sung in a very sad way.
“God’s love is so wonderful,” hears Father Patrick, and looks straight into the mad, mischievous eyes of Habiba Bibi, sitting astride his stomach, her lustrous hair hanging limply to her shoulders, half-covering her face, the long-bladed knife held high above her head.
His Grace opens his mouth to scream as the knife slashes downward; lets out an agonized gasp as her other hand covers his mouth firmly and the blade buries itself in his chest. Again and again, the knife slashes down, but after the first three or four thrusts, His Grace can feel nothing.
He does not see the heart-shaped face moving close to his own, does not feel the soft kiss on his throat or hear the tender, whispered words – “Sweet dreams, my child; sweet dreams,” – before the sharp, pearly teeth tear his throat apart.
And now, at last, she is at peace. At peace with herself, and with the world.
A Prince of the Church, no less. Surely, now the memories will fade and the tormenting darkness will be stilled.
Or will it?
His Holiness, Pope Francis, is due to arrive in Goa next month, on his first visit to India.
Is it possible?
It will not be easy; it will be very, very difficult. The security will be extremely tight.
An impossible dream? Perhaps.
But worth a try...
On black sheep can do a lot of harm. One black shepherd can wreak irreparable damage. And always, always, it is the innocents who suffer...
I HARDLY HAD ANY COMMENTS TO GIVE HERE BECAUSE THIS IS ONE OF THE BEST OF YOUR COLLECTION – SEEMS YOU’VE DONE MORE EDITING WORK ON IT THAN ON THE OTHERS? IT SHOWS :D - JF