I distinctly remember the day I first realized that the crumbling structure (which some would call a house) across the street, was to be demolished. That day, I was home alone; every member of my family was addressing duty calls. The house I talk about was not remarkable, or even noticeable in its youth, so I hear. The humble abode of an ordinary family of four. I have never met any of them though. The place was vacated years before I was born. The only living creatures to ever present themselves to me were the rats, and a menagerie of insects. So there it was: an old rickety house, like any other one would find in almost every block of this city, if not, every street.
I have a rather peculiar disposition, when it comes to studying. I cannot learn anything if I’m not constantly moving, and so, long exhausting strolls are the means through which I try to internalize the concepts which I can puke out in the examinations. This was what I was doing when, on that day, I observed a tiny commotion at the, usually deserted, main gates of the house across the street. I’m not exceptional at understanding signs, or lip reading, but common sense told me that the three men were deliberating over the house. As time advanced, I was nearly positive that they had finally decided to tear down the building. Apparently, the descendants of the original family had decided to do away with the house, and perhaps, use the land to erect a more productive establishment. The three men discussed some more and exited the stage.
What followed was a natural consequence of the aforesaid discussion. The deconstruction started in two days, and soon, there were men all over the place with their tools; Hammers, and other metal equipment whose nomenclature escapes me.
The process of demolition is nothing worthy of a verbose description. There is one incident though, which can be classified as ‘out of the ordinary’. The incident I’m about to cite, came to my knowledge through one of the workers responsible for the demolition of the building that should not have been disturbed. This, I didn’t know then. I know better now.
A worker, whose name I fail to recollect, was working on the demolition of the back end wall of the first floor of the single floor structure. After striking a couple of blows, he created a cavity in the upper right corner of the wall. As he lifted the hammer to deal the next blow, a big, hefty rat lunged at him from the void in the wall, and landed on his right hand. It was a repulsive creature; matted fur, long whiskers, but what the worker kept mentioning over and over to me was its eyes. Of course, you don’t see rats with sideways blinking bright yellow eyes every day! The airborne rat, after finding his place on the man’s hand, took a ravenous bite. The worker’s reflexes kicked in, and he let go of the industrial hammer which landed on his foot. Still, from what I hear, it was the rat bite more than the bruised foot that caused him to scream maddeningly. After a frenzied struggle to save his hand, he managed to dislodge the rat. The rodent scurried off to a dark corner, never to be seen again. The poor guy never showed up for work again. The guy who let me in on this story said that he didn’t even show up to collect his dues. Sometimes I wonder, what kept him away; the rat, or the foot injury.
A couple of weeks later, what was left of the building, was just a vacant plot of land staring at the sky. That is how it stays to this day. No one attempted to construct any structure there. In fact, after that incident on 24th February, 3 weeks after the demolition was complete, I doubt if anybody even stepped on that land. The events that transpired between the final day of demolition and that fateful day of 24th Feb. , do not otherwise deserve a glorified mention, but I present them here, because these events were responsible for what I believe, was the only communication ever established between the house( now no longer there, physically) and the living neighbourhood.
During this time, the plot became a versatile, freestanding facility for the multitude of residents around. It was a public toilet, where people feeling the need to relieve themselves, could find a decent corner to do their business. Of course, they always sought a corner where they could be oblivious to the bustle of the street; people had their dignity! It was a common dumping ground, with people flinging away plastic bags filled with their not so prized possessions. And lastly, it was a parking lot, without the annoying groundskeeper making you a ticket for parking time and space.
I would be lying if I said that it was mere curiosity that caused me to venture to the godforsaken place. Although the other motivator was also internal, it was much more cryptic and intense. And so, I summoned enough intestinal fortitude to go there.
On 20th Feb., at the hour of noon, I spied no activity in the plot and so, started my brief and stealthy journey towards it. When within the boundary walls, I scanned the sprawling space that lay before me. Nothing remarkable. This place was just weeks away from being officially designated a landfill. The smell of waste and human urine hung in the air. No cars today though, which was good for my expedition. I trekked through the litter, not entirely sure what I was looking for. Occasionally, I would detect movement in my peripheral vision, only to turn around and find a rat or two scurrying deeper into the filth. I was about to give up when, upon reaching the back left corner of the space, I sensed that the nature of the ground below my feet had changed. It was not the reassuring asphalt anymore. The hollow sound of wood below my feet alarmed me. I cleared this corner of trash, and saw a circular wooden lid in the ground there, secured fast by a rusty lock. The wood that made up the hatch had probably had seen better days. It was a flimsy cloak with cracks zigzagging in every direction. A couple of good kicks seemed enough to do the job. It actually took me three kicks to open it wide enough to allow for my slender body. The lid apparently covered a flight of stone stairs leading to a black abyss. As I descended into the damp and ancient air, I sensed fate at work here. The open hatch did not do much for my vision. Even after my eyes had adjusted to the dark, I could barely discern my surroundings. Fortunately, I had enough battery in my phone and its torch granted me abundant artificial light. The minimalist furniture in the room included a dusty bookshelf, and a large stone table in the centre. The first thing that struck me odd was that there were no chairs or stools around the table. So maybe this was not a study room at all. A casual inspection of the book titles revealed that the owner was interested in anatomy. There were dozens of books on animal anatomy in particular. Some of the older books were in scripts I had never known existed. Only one book in the bookshelf was not was not a piece of academia. It was a dog-eared scrapbook. The first photo featured a family. Mom, dad, two sons, and a pet terrier. Other photos featured the same cast with changing backdrops. The dad and children walking the dog, mom feeding the dog, and the likes. The last photo was a snapshot featuring the youngest son playing fetch with the canine. The date on the bottom right corner read 12th June 1988. I replaced the scrapbook in the shelf, and was starting toward the stairs when I realized that one of the anatomy books was about to fall. I grabbed it just in time and slid it back in. On the floor before me, I saw a photo which had slipped from the falling book. The photo displayed a macabre scene. The beloved family dog lay dead on the road, hit by a black car. Its fur was soaked in a pool of its own blood. The two brothers and their ma were kneeling beside the cadaver, sobbing. It was not this sight that caused me to rush out of the chamber, regretting the moment I had decided to descend those slimy stone steps; it was the date printed on the Polaroid: 6th June, 1988. Upon reaching home, in the comfort of my room, I made two deductions. First, the chamber I had just been in was never an ordinary study room. The room was decorated with no academic interest in mind. Second, a dead dog being brought back to life was a strong enough reason for neighbours to confront the family with bizarre questions. I had started to feel that abandoning the house was not entirely an independent decision. And now, I move to that ominous day of 24th February.
At 8.20 in the morning, I woke up to a muffled sound which I identified as the cackle of human voices. All of my family, save for my brother (who was still dozing), was downstairs at the main gate. They were occasionally pointing at the front wall of the house. I hurried down the stairs, not bothering for my slippers. I could tell something was wrong before I saw it for myself. It was flashing on all their faces. On the wall, written in red, jagged letters was this message: THE SLUMBER OF THE HOUSE SHOULD NOT BE DISTURBED. Below this message was a symbol I will not recreate here. I don’t have the nerve to summon it from my consciousness. The medium appeared to be red paint. The person (or entity) responsible for this act of vandalism had not bothered to use a brush. It was a neat piece of finger-painting though. My first thought was that my little visit to the place had unsettled something or someone. But when I turned around, I saw that every house on the street had the same decal. Somebody did not approve of the rather creative use of the structure-less land and had expressed dissent. Also, the message hinted that whoever did it, did not like to believe that there was no house there now. Despite all of this, the message did what it was supposed to do. Nobody has stepped on that land since, and people were quick to remove the identical messages from their walls. Nobody talked about it though; it is a silently observed practice to keep away.
And now comes the weird part. The reason why I’m writing this. When later that day, I was in the confines of my room, I realized that I could not recall anything about last night. I am not a sound sleeper, and I get up 5-6 times every night like clockwork. I don’t remember doing this that night. The chunk of memory pertaining to these hours is lost. But a look at my hands was enough to put my doubts to rest, and I'll tell you what, I learned something from all this too. It is not easy to get red paint off your nails.