Harbhajan Singh Sandhu
1168-B Westlake Blvd.
Westlake Village, CA 91361-1914
Fear of the Dark
Swallowing hard, Raju tried to ward off his mounting fear of the night’s encroaching darkness. He had just been dropped off at a deserted roadside bus stop in unfamiliar surroundings. The driver told him to travel about three miles due east to reach the foothill hamlet where, Raju had enthusiastically offered, his older brother had been recently posted.
“You be careful little fellow,” advised the conductor, “and hurry along; the sun is about to set. It will be dark soon. This scrubby terrain is home to plenty of wild animals,” he warned.
Little Raju, bold and confident thus far, suddenly felt scared. There was no sign of his brother and now the bus driver had injected an unexpected element of danger. Wild animals? he fretted as long shadows cast by a row of poplar trees flitted across the back of the bus as it sped away. Raju began to wonder if he had done the right thing by setting out on his own to this distant, unfamiliar place. Certainly, he had not expected it to take all day to reach his brother. At least he had the comfort of a hand-drawn map of the dirt path from the bus stop to the village. After studying the map, however, he suspected that he had been dropped off at the wrong spot and that his brother was waiting for him at another location.
“May be I’m wrong,” he muttered hopefully, “I’ll wait a little longer.” Then realizing that he felt hungry, he unwrapped the food package his mother had prepared. A whiff of spicy parathas—buttered layers of whole-wheat bread packed with a mixture of potatoes, chutney, coriander, diced chilies, and other seasoning—teased his nostrils. He sat on a roadside rock to watch the sun set slowly behind patches of golden-hued clouds while he devoured his meal. As he ate, he relived the excitement and adventure of his long bus ride; how packs of dogs had barked and chased the bus into each hamlet where it stopped midst a din of food and trinket hawkers. During some stretches of the trip, the bus became so overcrowded that overflow passengers had to sit on the roof. Frequently, there was standing room only; passengers were often huddled together like sardines. Caught in this squeeze, a crusty old man began to touch and rub against little Raju. “Come with me,” the man said, “we could get off at the next station.” Raju just looked away to discourage him. Later, he noticed a young mother trying to console her crying baby. She slipped her breast out of her gold-rimmed sari and the infant fell silent suckling contentedly. Drops of white milk permeated her sari around her golden-brown breast. She is beautiful, thought Raju, with a sense of shy delectation.
As the light of dusk began to fade and his brother still had not arrived, Raju’s initial nervousness turned to fright as a chorus call of wild jackals rang out in the quiet evening air. A shiver of danger coursed down his spine. He straightened up into a bold posture to ward off the next wave of panic. Then deciding that he had better hurry up and take his charted route before it got too dark, he gingerly set out, uncertain that his path was the right one. A rabbit rushed out from under a nearby bush cutting across his path; his heart stopped. Laughing at his edginess, Raju reminded himself that the village was not far by the bus driver’s estimate and that he would be there in no time.
Night’s total darkness descended rapidly. The profound stillness of the deserted countryside was disturbed by the occasional call of some roaming wild animal. Then several more chorus calls from the jackals erupted. At each howling outburst, Raju’s legs weakened. Were they getting close? He quickly treaded along in even longer strides as the circle of total darkness tightened around him. Bushes that stood lifeless in the sinking light of dusk now began to take on living forms; the shape of an animal lying in wait for its prey; a ghost come alive to scare a lost boy. The spirits and hobgoblins he had heard about in countless country tales, ones that he never thought actually existed, suddenly began to materialize. Was it his frightened self, creating these scary manifestations? Quickening his pace, he soon broke into a full run not knowing if he had lost track of the trodden path in the dark. He stumbled and fell. Had something or someone tripped him? he thought, freezing with fright. Slowly he realized it was only a dead branch. Squinting his eyes to pierce the darkness, he scanned the brush. Two shining green eyes looked directly at him from a short distance. The crackling of dead shrub indicated that the thing was approaching. He froze with fear and closed his eyes to repel the thought of being eaten alive by a wild beast. He smelled the beast’s odious breath on him as it brushed against his cheek. Minutes crawled by, but the creature did not maul or eat him. Then he heard another animal rush the one at his side. With vicious growls, a life and death struggle ensued. A bloody brawl, he surmised, to decide who would seize the prey. While the distracted animals battled, Raju bolted into the brush at lightning speed.
Having miraculously escaped, his shaky legs, strengthened by death’s fear, carried him swiftly onward toward the distant scattering of the village’s dim lights. Quaking inside, he shuddered at each little noise. Was that a hissing in the dead leaves? Was he just imagining that something nearby slithered through the darkness? A Cobra? Raju ran as fast as his little legs would carry him. Then, closing in on his destination, he became emboldened and laughed nervously at what he now considered to be his mind’s ghostly apparitions. The path had become solid and well trodden. The presence of people, he assured himself. Encouraged that the path cut across a piece of cleared land, and being less mindful of his steps, Raju’s foot suddenly sank deep into a patch of softened soil. A graveyard! he realized with instant alarm. He was deathly afraid of graveyards! The spirits of dead people inhabited such places! His newly gathered courage vanished. Again running at full speed, he imagined himself being chased by a pack of angry spirits. Faster and faster he ran, reaching a speed he did not think possible. Flying through the air to escape the frightening prospect of being possessed by the dead, he did not notice when he entered the outer fringes of the village. A pack of dogs rushed towards him. He was greatly relieved, despite their threatening, bared fangs. They continued to bark and protest as he slowed down and finally slumped to the ground to catch his breath. He was safe now, he thought. The dogs relented. Calling them with a gentle whistle, they approached with wagging tails. He petted them one by one—thanking his saviors for rescuing him from the apparitions of the night.
Raju played with the dogs for a long time, happy to be amongst them. The comforting pungent scent of cooking coming from the scattered houses dimly lit by earthen lamps, prompted him to rise to find his brother’s house. Though Raju knocked on many doors, his brother was not to be found. No one seemed to know of him; he was too new to the hamlet. Continuing his search, Raju peered through doors and windows hoping to catch the likeness of his brother inside. Success eluded him. After roaming around thusly for many hours, followed by his friendly retinue of dogs, Raju eventually gave up. Locating a side street, he huddled outside a walled compound with the dogs clustered around him. As the cold air from the nearby mountains slid down into the village streets, it became horribly cold.
Freezing cold and dejected, Raju shivered through the night, until he finally drifted off into a restless sleep. Suddenly, there were pouncing wild animals, and a chorus of chanting corpses, with gnarled hands and bleeding faces rushing toward him. He was up instantly and raced away from the dreadful scene as fast as he could, but he seemed to be running in place. As he was about to be swallowed by this grotesque mob, he screamed at the top of his lungs, but no sound came out. Utterly helpless, he was about to die a terrible death! Then his body shook fiercely. Awakening to the sound of a familiar voice saying, “Raju, wake up, wake up!” he jumped up to hug his brother and wept.