“Don’t talk to the corpses”, mother whispered, her wizened old hand shaking in his face.
Mother was a strange woman. She believed in ghosts and vetaals and corpses who talked.
She refused to believe that voices in Nadi’s head were real.
“Do you hear me, Nadi?”, she wheezed again, “Do. Not. Talk. To. The Corpses”, her hand grabbed his wrist feebly, trying to get his attention.
Nadi snatched his hand away, gently but not too gently. The old woman’s hand fell to her side, her eyes falling shut and breath coming in shallow gasps.
“Corpses”…she murmured while Nadi walked out of the room.
May be they were her fevered delusions. May be they were not. Mother was a strange woman. Nadi could never tell with her.
All Nadi knew was that it was impossible for her to have known about the corpses. It was impossible for her to have known where the money in the house came from. It was impossible for her to have known what kept Nadi sane. What kept him alive.
Or maybe it was not. Mother was a strange woman. Nadi could never tell with her.
It was a scorching May afternoon. The sun was bright. Too bright. The roads were dusty and deserted. The lonely neighborhood dog was whining pitifully for water or death…whatever was at hand. The leaves were scorched on the tree and mother was dead on her cot.
Nadi loved his mother. At least he thought he did. The voices in his head disagreed. She never understood him, they said. Nadi thought the voices were selfish. His mother understood him just fine. It was the voices that she had trouble with.
“Don’t talk to the corpses”, his mother had kept repeating. Nadi did not leave the room. He couldn’t. He sat by her side, nodding until she finally went quiet. Forever.
“Don’t talk to the corpses”, his mother had said. But corpses were all Nadi had. Apart from his mother. But mother was gone. And the corpses were all that were left.
That night, after Nadi had burned his mother on the pyre, he walked into the cemetery. The place where dead were buried not burnt. Ashes were ashes. It did not matter if it was a roadkill or a human body. In the end, ashes were worth nothing.
Bodies, on the other hand, were a different story. If you knew when to dig and where to sell — dead humans were often worth more than they were alive.
Cadavers for illicit scientific experiments, organ harvesting, smuggling, necromancy — Nadi had done it all. It was the underbelly of the civilized society that nobody ever acknowledged existed. It was the right fit for Nadi. The civilized society did not like to admit that he existed either. But these details never really registered for Nadi. All that mattered was that dead people did not ask questions, people dealing in dead people even less so.
The cemetery suited Nadi. An eerie quiet, no second glances and nothing but the cacophony in his head for company. It was better than the world outside. The dead did not judge him. Or fear him. Or shun him.
He liked the dead, his motives notwithstanding. The dead did not seem to mind him. It was the best relationship that Nadi had ever had.
It was perhaps why, sometimes, Nadi felt bad. He really did. Snatching the dead from their resting places. God knows, they deserved that peace. But Nadi had to feed himself. Besides, the voices liked it. And in the end, Nadi ended up liking everything the voices liked.
The voices liked the dead. They also liked the almost dead — the nameless and the homeless roaming the streets, always a breath away from their death.
There were times when voices urged Nadi to expedite what was imminent.
There were times when Nadi took their advice.
Nadi had realized early on that his world was not kind to people like him. It was perhaps why, the voices hated the world.
Nadi’s mother was a part of this world. It wasn’t really her fault. It wasn’t Nadi’s fault either. But, he had to suffer for it.
For some reason, everyone around him wanted to get rid of the voices in his head. It was a compulsion that was beyond Nadi’s comprehension. The voices were his friends — his only companion in a world that was lonely and harsh. But nobody believed him. They thought he was touched in his head. There was a familiar gesture, everyone around him liked to use it a lot — a finger to the forehead and rolling eyes. Nadi was not dumb. He knew what they meant. And for most part, he did not care. Not until they wanted to do something about it.
Life was hard for people in Nadi’s part of the world — a remote, rural town with no electricity and minimum education. It was the part of the world where illnesses were easily confused with ghost possessions and real ghost possessions were a fatal fact of life. Witch doctors existed in harmony with the real ones, striking a balance that was almost ironic. It was the kind of world that was designed to make Nadi’s life miserable with an impeccable combination of ignorance and ingenuity.
Nadi’s mother lived in a state of constant denial. She refused to believe that the voices in Nadi’s head were anything more than his overripe imagination. It was the preferable state of her being. Because the one time she admitted those voices were real, she sat through a witch doctor slashing Nadi’s arm with a rusty, old knife, staring at the crimson rivulets that flowed down with stony eyes. Nadi’s screams of pain could have curdled the blood of the vilest. But not his mother. She did not flinch. She sat there, unmoving, as Nadi screamed himself hoarse through the night.
The memories of that night never abandoned Nadi. It wasn’t just about the inhuman physical agony. It was about the betrayal that he had felt — that he had always felt since that night, every time he looked at his mother. The scars on his body scabbed, paled and faded. But the scars on his soul remained — fuelling the voices in his head with rage and pain that had nowhere else to go.
It wasn’t his mother’s fault. She loved him. She was trying to help. At least, she thought she was. In the rare moments when the voices in his head were relatively quiet, Nadi understood it. Besides, it was the only way he could rationalize the love he still felt for her despite that night. Despite everything else.
The voices hated him for this weakness.
It was surprising how voices in his head were used as a convenient excuse. Against him. Every single time.
‘It is all in your head’, they would whisper and just like that, his version of reality was shredded into pieces.
He was 8 when he had heard that sentence for the first time. It was the slimy old man, everyone called Grandpa in the village.
He had pulled Nadi in his lap, his wrinkly old hands snaking their way into Nadi’s worn, baggy shorts.
‘It is all in your head’, the old man had whispered as he pushed Nadi away. That night, when he walked home, his hands clutched around his shorts in a death grip and face covered with tears and snot, he had heard the voices in his head weep.
He had tried telling his mother — tried telling her everything that was incomprehensible and wrong and ripping him apart from the inside.
‘It is all in your head’, his mother had parroted, never really meeting his eyes.
And it was the beginning of an excuse that made life easy for everyone around Nadi’s miseries. The local bully who had him up against a wall by his throat until he wheezed and begged for air; the shopkeeper round the corner who could never keep his hands to himself; the creepy uncle who liked visiting his house a little too much and the doctor who had unorthodox methods of treating his patients.
Everyone got away. Until they didn’t.
Once Nadi started listening to the voices, they had all the answers he needed. And if the local bully suddenly went missing and old Grandpa abruptly died in his sleep — nobody ever tried to question him. It was all in his head anyway.
When Nadi was 18, a doctor came visiting his sleepy town. He had a charity mission. And for some reason, he wanted to help everyone. Including Nadi.
He was gentle and kind — an aberration Nadi had no clue how to deal with.
Nadi hated him. Not because he treated Nadi with contempt. But because, he treated him.
It was the worst week of Nadi’s decidedly bad life. It was the week when the voices disappeared. The doctor’s medicines worked. They also made Nadi sluggish and useless. The doctor, however, was happy.
Nadi was not. He did not mind being useless or lying around on a cot in a half dead state. But the silence — the silence bothered him. It was deafening. It was lonely and dark and so terribly painful, Nadi had wanted to bang his head on the wall just to ease the pressure in his chest.
Nadi burned the stash of medicines as soon as the doctor left town. And he learned to pretend that the voices did not exist.
Cruelty could never be as potent as kindness was.
Two days after his mother died, Nadi finally walked out of the cemetery — a corpse slung around his shoulder. Another homeless man had died. And the shallow grave that he had been callously thrown into was too tempting.
Grief had paralyzed Nadi. But not enough.
Nadi knew that the body itself was not going to fetch him a lot — if at all. Not fresh enough, not healthy enough — simply not enough. If Nadi wanted to get something out of that body, he knew he would have to dig into the holes that were so dark and dingy, even he thought twice before resorting to them.
But it gave Nadi something to do — an excuse to be somewhere that was not dotted with dead people. It was a pointless irony. He was not looking for an excuse. The voices were. They were getting restless and he needed to get busy.
Nadi was startled out of his reverie. He looked around.
“Lugging dead people around. And I thought people don’t do that anymore”
Nadi was walking down the narrow road by the cemetery. It was the part of the town that was deserted in the middle of the day. And it wasn’t middle of the day. Night had fallen long ago and while Nadi did not care for the luxury of a watch, he knew it was close to midnight.
Nadi looked around, knowing it was futile. He was alone. Which meant the voice…
“…is mine”, the dead old man on his shoulder completed his thought.
Nadi looked ahead and continued walking, resolutely ignoring the dead man’s attempt to get friendly.
“Now this is a little impolite. You are hurting my feelings”, the crackling voice rung again and Nadi flinched despite himself. The silence around him was almost sonorous in its perfection and the piercing cackle of the corpse was an anomaly so jarring, it physically hurt.
“Oh dear, you are not scared? Are you?”
Nadi refused to respond and continued walking.
“Still. Not. Talking…Typical”, the voice huffed.
There was a beat of silence that echoed with Nadi’s frantic breaths. Carrying dead weight was hard work. Carrying a talking dead weight was a lot harder.
Nadi tried to control his breathing, forcing himself to consider it all an illusion. He tried to focus on the voices in his head.
There were none. There was only silence.
“There is nobody here but me”, the dead man noted with some amusement just as Nadi felt a cold sensation across his forehead, “I guess you will have to live with that compromise”
Nadi felt a distinct chill run down his spine which he distantly recognized as fear. It was more of an academic observation. In truth, Nadi felt like an outsider in his own body.
“You don’t scare easy. Do you?”, the dead man said.
Nadi was silent.
“You better respond, or your head might burst into several pieces. Did your mother not tell you the lore about our kind?”
In fact, mother had. Nadi remembered his mother telling tales about Vetalas who resided in dead bodies and played 20 questions with whoever dared move those bodies. If you knew the answer but still kept quiet, your head exploded into several pieces.
“We don’t play 20 questions”, the dead man interrupted his thoughts, “Humans are much too inferior to be played games with. Pitiable IQ. I am, however, waiting for an answer”, he cackled, his tone only changing mildly.
Nadi immediately sensed the threat and shook his head mutely.
“That is better. You should listen to your mother. Mothers are never wrong!”, the dead man’s voice was solemn.
“Sometimes they are wrong”, Nadi countered and immediately snapped his mouth shut, evidently surprised at himself.
There was a low hum in the air around Nadi that had steadily begun growing stronger. The dead man was silent for a few seconds. And when he spoke, his voice had a languid tenor that snapped Nadi’s consciousness right back into his body, making him feel every ounce of fear that had been hanging around him ever since the dead man had started talking.
“Mothers”, the dead man said, soft and slow right as the hum started to intensify, pulsating and bouncing off every nerve in Nadi’s body, “are usually right…You should have listened to your mother, Nadi.”
Nadi stopped in his tracks, cold sweat drenching his clothes.
“Mother said”, he whispered softly, “Don’t talk to the corpses”
The hum around him exploded into an ear splitting roar, racking his body with violent tremors. Everything around Nadi was still…while every fiber of his body seemed to be tearing apart. His mouth opened on a silent scream as he felt his blood rush into his head. He closed his eyes as the pressure built and he heard the voices in his head scream one last time….
“…you should have listened to your mother Nadi…”
And then there was silence.
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