Our God for that Night
By Anindita Das
We set off from the Tahquamenon Falls Visitor’s Centre late in the afternoon in our rented Toyota Prius, my husband at the wheel, while my daughter and I ensconced at the rear. As we headed east driving down the Falls Road along the Tahquamenon river, the sky, visible through the sun-roof, was an infinite vault of uniform grey. Amber, bronze and scarlet leaves, about to fall and wither before the frigid winter set in with its pall of gloom, tentatively clung to trees that copiously lined either side of the nearly desolate road. Cheddar crunchies, an efficacious distraction for my thoroughly bored eight month old, lay peppered on her powdered blue pinafore and on the carpet car mat. The nursery rhymes that were playing on the loop in the car stereo, lullabied the little one to snooze, and the leaden sky transformed itself into a menacing hue of molten asphalt. Nondescript houses sporadically dotted the left side of the road, lit only by the glare of the car’s headlights, its beams steady, illuminating the endless stretch of smooth tar; while the right side, with its woody grove, lay mysteriously eerie, the tenebrous silhouettes of the swaying trees reminding me of the occult. In that dark, windswept M-28W, the sound of the tyres slicing the steady, autumnal breeze, was the only sound from outside the vehicle, that fed our jaded ears.
With forty five miles still to reach Munising, our destination, located in the upper peninsula of Michigan, the car’s engine abruptly stalled making my habitually unperturbed husband park the vehicle on the edge of the road.
“Why did the car stop?” I inquired, leaning forward from the rear seat.
“Something’s wrong with the vehicle,” he replied, his tone non-expressive, almost to the point of being nonchalant; its intonation flat, similar to that when he would order for breakfast in a deli or call to inform me about a cancelled dinner date owing to an emergency at work.
He pressed on the automatic ignition switch several times but the engine, far from starting, would not even rev. Now, from where I sat, in the pitch-like darkness, the black switch was barely distinguishable from the black dashboard. Fishing out the manual from the storage box, sunk inside the dashboard, my unruffled husband leafed through its glossy pages, using the faint glow of the mobile phone to read the printed instructions. He peered over a page, trying to decipher a complex set of diagrams, his eyes dilated, his brow creased in the muted light. The trees, that were a riot of colours a while earlier, were now a nebulous profile of copses – dim, dark and amorphous. He pressed on the ignition switch again and again as though it were a retractable ballpoint pen, but the attempts yielded the same results as earlier.
“What do we do now?” I asked. My apparently innocuous question evidently laced with the first signs of panic.
As if to add to the panic, my husband announced in concomitance, “There’s no network coverage in my phone.”
With my phone displaying a lone tower, that too unsteady and sporadic, our desperate attempts to reach our car rental were returned with only beeps, that sounded thrice before the short, high-pitched sounds died their natural deaths. My husband got out of the car and started fidgeting with his phone, the glow of its monitor, lighting up his unflustered face in the pitch-like darkness. For a moment he waved his hand above his head making me wishfully believe it were a signal to some helpful passer by. Then he repeated the gesture again and again and again, in brief intervals before getting back inside the car grimacing, “A swarm of mosquitoes.”
“Mosquitoes?” I asked, surprised, “Must be bugs.” I always thought mosquitoes were tropical parasites.
“Why not call 911,” I suggested, in spite of the knowledge that none of us were bodily wounded or hurt to seek its assistance.
“We aren’t in an emergency yet to seek their help,” my husband replied curtly. “We have other options.” He looked outside the car as he said this.
I was not sure what the other options were in that hinterland, that, barring its few ramshackle houses resembled a wilderness. The inside of the car increasingly got cold causing my daughter to shift her body every now and then. A modest house, in want of urgent repair, stood next to the road where our car was parked. While I remained inside the car with the baby, my husband decided to get help from the house’s occupant, in spite of my apprehensions. In the wanly lit front yard of the house, I saw my husband’s lean profile disappear behind the clump of trees that stood at the mouth of the gravelled driveway.
I spread another blanket over my daughter’s supine body, tucking its edges nicely so that no part of her body lay exposed to the cold that increasingly grew chillier with the heating no longer working. A car whizzed past the road, its ferocious velocity rocking our stationary vehicle, the same way our family sedan rocked when driven in strong winds. The woods on the other side, enigmatic and occult, swished and swayed in the breeze, its rustling leaves ratcheting up a chill down my spine. I looked over my shoulder to check if my husband had returned, but behind the perforated clump of trees, my eyes could only see the inhospitably lit front yard. Inside the uneasy calm of the car, broken only by my daughter’s rhythmic breathing pattern, my overly perturbed mind began conjuring up hostile images, typically associated with the nocturnal. The brutal awareness of being alone in that bitumen-like darkness inevitably clouded my trepidatious mind with horrendous thoughts, both tangible – the evil, the nefarious, the Satanic; and intangible – the incorporeal, the spectral, the apparitional.
While staying in Kolkata as a paying guest when I was a university student, my mother, alarmed at the news of thuggery, thievery, and robbery, would often, during our telephonic conversations, instruct me to return home by nightfall.
“Do not venture out after twilight,” was her oft-repeated forbiddance as though following nightfall, criminals and miscreants would roam the streets in hordes to pounce on unsuspecting passers-by like me.
But sitting in that dark, cold, bleary car, with a husband gone inside an absolutely unknown and flagrantly uninviting house for what seemed like eternity, my mother’s apparently unfounded warnings and worries and woes suddenly rang a bell of truth to my frayed mind. Ironically, unlike the adequately lit streets of Kolkata, that jostled with life even after sundown, here I was stranded in a forlorn, sparsely inhabited road, where even a trace of life was hard to come by following dusk, that too in an hour when only darkness reigned supreme with its limitless expanse.
Gripped by fierce and uncontrolled trepidation, I plucked my sleeping child from the car seat. Holding the little bundle, I scurried down the gravelled driveway, my heels precariously teetering over the shingles, reaching the uninviting front yard of the nondescript house where I stood, huffing, in front of a window through which I could see my husband facing a man whose back, undeniably broad, stared at me. My writhing child, having been jerked awake was nevertheless put back to sleep by my feverishly rocking arms; feverish, not only on account of the pressing need to put the grumpy child back to sleep but also owing to my throbbing palpitation, as though my heart was under the sudden grip of a severe diastolic malfunction from what my horror-struck eyes was now witnessing.
The man, colossal by any standard, both in stature and girth, seemed to be towering menacingly over my rather scrawny husband, whose face, seemingly agitated, could only be peered at when the burly man budged. The gargantuan creature, stood with arms akimbo, leaning his hips against a table, so only his back, waist-upward, was visible to me, his nape holding a head covered in a mop of curly, raven hair that had begun to grey. The inside of the house, as unwelcoming as the outside, looked grimy and dim much like those squalid bordellos one sees in movies. With his paw-like hands tightly fisted, the pudgy fingers of his right hand firmly gripped on to the black handle of a thick, butcher knife, its stainless steel glistening in the sooty light. But it was not the knife’s pointed tip, menacingly staring at me, that made me freeze in horror. The cause of my unfathomable petrification was its serrated blade that was smeared in crimson as any sharp blade would be stained if used for slaughter.
Horrifying images of a gruesome murder in downtown Chicago, that my husband and I were accidentally witnesses to, flashed upon my mind. After finishing dinner at a nearby fast food joint, we were returning to our hotel when a woman walking on the opposite pavement was accosted by a man, who had a complexion as dark as this gargantuan creature’s as though it were carved out of coal. With the speeding traffic blocking our view, we managed to get a glimpse of the satanic man pulling the woman’s handbag as though both the assailant and the victim were engaged in a violent tug-of-war when, amidst the din of honking horns, two distinct sounds, occurring in quick succession but similar to that of crackers bursting, ripped through the nocturnal air. The woman, shot twice from point blank range, had succumbed to her injuries even before the police could arrive. Ever since that fateful night, I had religiously avoided driving through the Black ghettoes, even if it meant taking an elongated and often time-taking detour, in the small Midwestern town where I lived.
Panicky and swithering, my trance was broken by my daughter’s sudden wail, whose tiny tip of nose, all this while exposed to the October chill, had gone pink. To my horror, the shrill wail alarmed the dark, mammoth creature inside, making him look over his shoulder when I caught sight of his eyes for the first time, its look unfriendly, its pupils dark, glistening against his smooth, tar-like complexion. Fearing he might attack me and my daughter with that knife, I darted across the front yard towards the driveway when I heard my husband call my name from behind, “Monami,” stretching the ‘i’ at the end of the name making it sound like a long vowel. Fear had caused my mouth to dehydrate, while my limbs were a pair of trembling poles. My husband was advancing towards the wailing child, tightly hugged against me, while the creature stood still, his stature gigantic, his presence intimidating, his intentions baleful.
“I thought you guys were hit by a deer. Many a car gets hit in this area. Deer often stray on to the road from the adjoining woods,” the creature spoke; his voice deep but hoary.
Seeing my eyes still transfixed on the blood-smeared knife, he said, “This one,” pointing the knife towards me, almost making me retreat with horror. “I was slicing a beef steak for dinner,” he shrugged, grinning, exposing his pearly whites.
It was then that I noticed that he was wearing a tangerine orange apron over his blue jumper. Seeing my husband trying to calm the wailing child, the man suggested, “You must be cold. Get inside the car,” he pointed to a family van parked outside the garage at the end of the gravelled driveway. He turned on the car’s engine and went inside the house calling out back, “I’ll be back in a minute.”
The daughter was still whimpering when we got inside the car, its warmth readily absorbed by my cold body, as blotting paper to ink. The nearest car rental office in Milwaukee wouldn’t be dispatching a technician before eight the following morning to repair our broken car.
“Where are we going to stay tonight?” I asked my husband.
“He has helped me book a motel, run by his friend in McMillan. Thank God we found a good Samaritan like him,” my husband informed, referring to the man who he said was named Gregory.
I didn’t care to know where McMillan was or how were we to reach the unheard of place.
“But what made you scuttle in that way?” my husband asked, his tone a rare mix of astonishment and perplexity.
“I was scared,” I said. “I saw you through the window and you looked so agitated.” I could still feel my temples throb.
“The Comfort Inn, the only hotel in the vicinity was booked to brim. Anyone would be agitated with such unaccommodating news,” he said turning towards me before asking, “What made you scared?”
I wanted to say scared of the darkness, the night, the woods, the blood-smeared knife and…the Black creature but just then I noticed Gregory emerge out of the house. In the next ten minutes, as I sat with by babbling baby, he helped my husband transfer our baggage and the car seat to his car. As he drove us towards McMillan, a town twelve miles away from where our car had broken down, my mind rewound the extraordinary chain of events that unfolded through the evening. As we checked in the motel, we were informed that their kitchen had closed for that night, making us order dinner from a Pizza Hut outlet nearby, again at the suggestion of Gregory.
As each succulent morsel of the pizza helped fill my famished stomach that night, I thanked the Almighty for providing us with food and a warm bed to sleep. And, I also thanked the other God, God Gregory. Unlike the time-tested haloed image of God – always a vision in pristine white or even the ten-handed Indian Goddess, who in her garishly colourful sartorial assortment, is a vision in smooth alabaster, God Gregory was the God etched in black, carved out from bitumen, much like the darkness of that eventful night.
Anindita Das is from Siliguri, a small town, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas in West Bengal. A blogger and a freelance storyteller, she currently writes from Kolkata.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.