Losing one’s face, losing one’s name, losing one’s self—many horror stories are premised on these hypothetical losses. We may like to indulge in a philosophical discussion about the uses of identity and who we really are, but after the tea is had and the biscuits have vanished, we want to continue being whoever it is that we are—back pain, migraine, varicose veins, neuroses, all. In Sharuth Eiasava’s Lady Victopress, the elements are veritably all there: a tenant with ‘issues’, a possibly haunted house, a portrait that speaks, an apparition that moves, and a sidekick who can’t fully be trusted. Tension builds, the disintegration of the narrator begins to show in the narration, and yet, nothing quite prepares us for the Cortazar-esque end.
— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Moments that have passed should be allowed to pass.
I was afraid of one thing which had many manifestations, forms, and hideous caprices. It had innumerable impossibly possible ways to attack. Be careful, and be wise! The proverb had no meaning here, because here, all you could do is sit and wait, for those who never come, for those who have already come, for those who would never tell a lie, for those who always lie, for those who would haunt you – close to the grave, close to the bed where a toothache, an argument with your known, a look of the unknown, a mounting snicker, could lead you to an abyss. “Now, now,” it would say, “now, now, you have come and now, now, you shall stay with us, we shall keep you very close, nothing to worry about, what do you worry about, fear has no way here, for this, we, the abyss, the infinite maze, the perpetual darkness shall give you sights so cold that even steamy water can turn into ice, now, now, you have come, and there is no way out!
When I arrived at my new place, it was raining cats and dogs. The galvanized zinc shed that covered almost the whole of the settlement welcomed me dripping tears, “you should not be here, you should not be here, turn away and leave,” they seemed to whisper, but those whisperings were not uncommon to me. My mind heard more, listened more, thought more, saw more, felt more, and feared more. “This is just a thought,” I said to myself, “this is just a thought. You aren’t your thought; this is just a thought. You are the master of the mind; the mind is not your master. You are the ocean, don’t be troubled by the waves.” This anthem had been given to me by my psychiatrist. It relaxed me in such moments of oncoming breakdowns. The psychiatrist had done a great deal of work on my fragile brain, coming very close to curing me of the disease. But the disease wasn’t a disease. Nor was it a condition, nor a set of special circumstances that I would come across in our ever-changing world and have my brain triggered into behaving abnormally. It is not a disease, I repeated, when the car drove me amidst those shacks with roofs of galvanized zinc. “Then what is it?” my psychiatrist had asked me. I had seen veiled mockery underneath his look of concern and confusion, as if saying, what the hell you know about your mind, I diagnose these things, I treat them. As if helping someone gave you the complete authority, made you the master and the owner of him as your slave. That kind of help shouldn’t be sought so much, and yet it is.
“It is me.” I said to him. “Me?” he asked. “This is a part of me, and no matter what you do I cannot get rid of it.” I said and the psychiatrist laughed his funny little laugh implying you are being a baby, and this is the business of adults. Hello? I was 19 years old, I thought. “Son,” he said, “don’t get your parents into trouble, you are completely normal.” “I know that,” I said to him. “You knew?” he asked, smiling. “Yes, I got to know that when I got to know that it isn’t a disease.” The psychiatrist sighed, drew back on the desk where he had rested himself, in front of my chair. He folded his hands, tilted his head to collect words, then said: “Alright. As you think. As long as you feel you are normal.” “I am normal in me, like everyone is normal in them. Each has his own normal,” I replied. In response to this, the psychiatrist went into hysterics: “You sure would become a philosopher, you are good, you are good at it!” And he kept on laughing till our session was over and I went out, not before listening to him say, “Take your medicines regularly and don’t forget your meditation time.” “I will,” I said, and came back home, where my old parents sat waiting for me, their only child born after fifteen years of marriage. “What did he say?” they asked. “I am completely fine, he says,” I said. How they beamed and hugged me, finally releasing a breath held for months, since I had exposed my problem to them. I was relieved at them being relieved, and that was all. I went into my room and threw the tablets away, replacing the bottles with white sugar tablets that I had bought on my way home. I never ate a single dose of what the psychiatrist gave, nor did I ever sit for meditation.
The car drove in the yard of the mansion where I was to stay. Somewhere in Africa. A small town named Oringo was the spot of my mission. I was sent by Christian missionaries as a moral preacher and clergyman to the church that was way out in the thick orchard of the trees with whose leaves the villagers had covered their roof earlier. The villagers had been worshipping the orchard since long, until our missionaries came and taught them the love of Jesus. Their getting to know Jesus had been a slow process, it had taken time, but now there were firm footholds established. More than 70% of the population of Oringo, 2,756 people, were Catholics, and the rate increased with every mission. I had stayed for months on end in other villages in other parts of Africa. I preached well, people liked me, they respected me, and I had had to myself the opportunity of falling in love with a few black women. One of the girls I had fallen in love with was of blue-black colour. People were disgusted at her skin, but I had loved her. For me she had something that others didn’t.
She was divine in my eyes. An angel? A demon? That wasn’t known. More often than not on chilly winter nights she carried an extra warmth, and whenever we sat snuggling, my chest would burn on the inside, and on the outside she would make me sweaty and moist. The looks in her eyes when she left each day plunged me into agonies. I would begin to shiver, and even piles of blankets or tons of wood-fire couldn’t warm me. One day she disappeared, never to return. The villagers said she was gone. “How can she? How can she?” I muttered. But she was truly gone. Her name was Tabiya and she was beautiful.
The two-storied house was dull yellow in color. It had massive windows as eyes. Like a lizard, it appeared both fearing and fearful. Like it would jab me with its speedy tongue and swallow me, or it would run away as a lizard in rain and find shelter under some other shelter. The thing which we all do, finding shelters under shelters. But as I approached the house, it dawned on me that if the house was a lizard, it was a dead one. Whose skin becoming white would dissolve in the peeling rain, whose bones would wither and mix in the coarse wet soil. Any moment it would open its dead eyes and stare, with its lizard-mouth open so that you see the bright redness—tongue? palate? blood?
The dead lizard’s doors didn’t creak when I opened them.
“Is it maintained?”
“Yes,” said the driver carrying my two suitcases; one heavy, one light.
So, the lizard was given food, I thought.
“Who maintains it?”
“Some Mr. Rouault,” he said, his brown face and wide bridge of the nose forming the words more than his mouth.
“When he comes?”
“Each morning,” he said and went in ahead of me. He placed the luggage at a spot and asked me for the money. I gave it to him, and he asked, “When will the rest of the missionary come?” “In a month,” I said, “will not Mr. Rouault come today?”
“He comes every day,” he said and went away.
When I entered the house, the Lizard House, as I had named it, I was greeted by none but a portrait of a lady. The minute I entered the sitting-parlour and moved around, there on the dark-green soiled wall, framed in black wood, was a large portrait of the lady. She seemed to be asking me, How do you do? Was your journey nice? A slightly pulled smile, a head raised so that a double-chin if present would be pulled tight under the stern length of that smooth neck. She was painted in – I had some knowledge of painting – acrylic. A skin acrylic, how great a trouble the painter would have taken to paint just this proud neck, not a single crease, not a single wrinkle. Blur away all the parts of the portrait, just leave the smooth patch that could have been anything but chose to be the neck of this lady, to rest under her chin, the lady whose name was, as written in bold engravings underneath: Lady Victopress. Peculiar name. I met her eyes that said: You are late, you are very late, how much have I waited for you here hanging on the wall, sitting on the couch behind you. At last you are here – but late, I shall never forget that. Her eyes rebuking! Where have you been! Where! Where! Tell me! Shout me! Else I will shout at you! Lips that said, Enough now, enough, I don’t want to talk to you! Get away from me, maintain your distance! I am Lady Victopress! I was made to shut you up! Each part when viewed, complete in its own way, conveying a strangeness, and non-relatability, a piece of puzzle detached yet whole enough to amaze, and when seen altogether, there, there, the lady in her black gown – fair skin – those eyes-those lips-those shoulders! Her hair said: Kill me! The fringe above her sleeked and greased hair, saying, shouting like a mist of ghost, save me, you don’t see what you look at, kill me and I would be free – kill me or I will kill you, same as – shut up or I will shut you. Her ears said nothing, for they laughed into that ugliest, frank grimace – I know what you are thinking.
At once I longed to meet this Lady Victopress, I longed to sit by her on the couch, or be painted in her painting, to ask her several questions, inquire about her hair, her skin, her eyes, her nose – what do you know – her ears, her neck, and those swellings perturbed by black clouds of the dress. What do you know about me, Lady Victopress, what do you know? Well, I know everything, she seemed to say. Stay away! Stay close! She would shout! Did your husband beat you? Were you bullied? How were your parents, your in-laws, your neighbours, your lovers? How do you live? How do you do? Where do you live? Here? In the wall? In the house? My mind ransacked for more questions, catching me in its tornado of endless strings and beads of thoughts, when I said shaking away from the portrait, “These are just thoughts, you are the master of your mind, you are the ocean don’t be troubled by the waves.” And Lady Victopress, mockingly at me, like the psychiatrist, What do you know about your mind? What do you know! You don’t have the faintest idea! And the laughter that poured in my ear, storming in sinisterly from behind her closed stretched lips, shivering me with cold fear. Oh, come and kiss me? I won’t do a thing! I jolted my neck away. A knock on the door broke my dreadful reverie.
“Mr. Patterson?” said a voice.
“Come in, please,” I said. In came a man in black suit and white skin.
“I am David Rouault, nice to meet you,” said he, and shook my hand.
“Are you going to stay here for the night?” I asked..
“Stay here for the night,” I repeated, throwing a glance at the Lady Victopress portrait. I wanted to beg him.
“Why, are you afraid?” he asked and laughed.
“Yes,” I said, it was a half-lie, although true I was afraid, but moreover Lady Victopress wanted him to stay.
His teeth opened inside the lips and he said, “Well, I got my family at home, if you like you can come and stay for few days until you get adapted to this surrounding which surely is spooky, you aren’t the first to ask me to sleep here, many before have asked. I wonder who except me would dare spend a night alone here,” and he chuckled.
“No, no, no.” I said, flushed, “I cannot leave this place. I am sent here. Will you stay, please, just for a few evenings?” I begged.
“Well Mr. Patterson, you can come with me, my wife is a good chef, and we are the ones guiding you here. My family only has my wife. No children yet, though we were desperate once. You know what I mean, this place is harsh to survive. We lost three children in their infancy. My wife is too scared to conceive now. We are leaving this damn land soon, in a year or two.”
“So, you are staying here?” I asked again.
“Oh, come on, alright…alright if you are afraid that much! You can come to my place though, you are welcome.”
“No, here…here it is fine. I have to live here,” said I.
The Lady had listened to our conversation, and when in the evening I passed down the room again, her smile looked deeper, as if someone had stealthily touched up the painting. The eyes were the same, and so was the rest, but the smile… it seemed different… or was it a minute distinction made by me in the evening light, as a single ray of orange crossed them.
“I am the master of my mind; I am not the thoughts!” I exclaimed and climbed upstairs to my bedroom, lit now by candles that only threw light as far as the bed, giving one the feeling of sleeping amidst the dark mist. Mr. Rouault was sleeping in a room downstairs. He said his wife hated this house. She had only ever spent one night here, soon after her wedding. She’d imagined the house to be a haunted house, and it was for the sake of thrill that she’d decided to sleep here. The next morning, she woke after noon and declared: “Run, run! Run! This house is haunted.”
“Of course, it isn’t haunted,” Mr. Rouault had said, as we sat in the dining room before going to bed, “many men and women of your missionaries have stayed here, alone or in groups, none have ever reported any hauntings, nor have the villagers living here. It was just my wife and her fantasies, formed out of those gothic novels she read with those ghastly demons on its cover-pages. She has her mind so full of these ideas. Once I read: what you think, you attract. So, she might have attracted a hallucination of hers in her dreams. Yes, dreams are so uncertain, you can just watch anything, anything I say. I have got the most peculiar dreams! She is cynical. To tell you a secret – she blames the death of our infants on this house. She says the Lady – whose portrait you might have seen hanging on the sitting room, yes, that Lady – she says that Lady Victor…”
“Victopress,” I said.
“Yes, that Lady Victopress had cursed her, she said to be honest – that the lady had eaten her womb and the babies born out of it would be dead in a few months. All deposited to the realms of spirits, where she was one of the queens… that lady Victor…”
“Victopress,” I said.
Then he laughed very loudly, adding, “Such nonsense! She is a fanatic; I was so afraid that I was about to forbid her from reading those novels. But then I saw that she was already burning them in the backyard. She was so terrified back then. Now, she is alright, although speaks very less as compared to early days. She hardly gives me good company, you see that is why I agreed to stay here – though it would have been better if you were at my home, I could have shown my place off and we would have chatted all night. I am a teacher as well. I teach Geography in the school, where you are the headmaster now. These pure schools of your missionaries, I have earned my life through them, Mr. Patterson and I am glad you came. You are such a gentleman, and a good listener, the previous headmaster was a grumpy old sod. Well, what to say now.”
“Good night Mr. Rouault,” I said and got up to my bedroom. I was a good hearer always, and a good listener, but not for the living.
“Good night, good night,” he said, smiling and standing awkwardly, leaving for his room. He had mistaken me for the headmaster, I was the clergyman, to give sermons in the church. The headmaster would arrive in a month. But I didn’t correct him for the fear that he might leave me on some pretext after finding out I don’t deserve his polished manners and slippery flattery.
I began ascending the stairs and was stuck halfway. Lady Victopress was calling: will you not come kiss me goodnight! Come to mama! Come to me! My Henry, Henry, Henry. Come to me and kiss me goodnight! Come to Polaire! I am Polaire! Come to your lady! Lady Victopress! Goodnight_
“I am the master, the ocean, the thoughts are not me! I have the power.”
The next Sunday I was in the church by eight in the morning and I read the sermons, went to the school, and finally declared to Mr. Rouault that the headmaster would come in a month. And that I was a teacher of literature.
“Literature means novels?” he asked in his room. The broken-down wooden school building was situated on an airy patch of land surrounded by the huts of the villagers.
“Novels, plays, poems, short stories, essays, and more. Literature is a vast subject,” I said.
“So is Geography,” I discerned the scorn in his voice.
That evening he came late to the house, and told me that his wife was a little ill. I was yet too afraid to let him go. I said nothing and went into the sitting parlour, oppressed by Lady Victopress. A part of me wanted to be oppressed.
You know how I was, she said, I ruled all. I could have been the queen, I am the queen, I have overruled whoever has tried to stop me, dominate me, hurt me, subdue me, I was a rebel! Ask me! How rebellious I was! Braver than any woman, any man in the world. What I didn’t like, I didn’t like, and I stood by that! My voice screeched and echoed; my orders were followed. I mocked the ones who were late! Like you were late!
“My wife is ill, but she sends me here, says you should take care of the Mr. She is still kind, though a bore. I don’t like her anymore. She remains quiet, as if she is dead. I drink coffee by the table and she is just so negligible all the time, I wonder if she has turned into a puppet, or a doll whose strings were as dead as she was. I never complain of children. But at least you be with me, I have said to her many times, why are you abandoning me, why don’t you ever talk. She said she is gone – too far. One day, when her silence was infuriating me, I asked: why are you gone too far? She said let me fly! Oh, let me fly! I hit her then, I had to hit her. I found a club and hit her. Her mouth bled. That bastard woman! She still repeated, let me fly, oh let me fly, I hit her on the back and she fell. Now talk to me, otherwise I will beat you again, I said, and stomped back into my room. The next day she talked, but I couldn’t understand what! She said you are late! You are late! I hit her again and hit her continuously for a month, not each day but often. She didn’t change one bit, so I quit beating her. And now, she has become too proud.”
“Do you know how Lady Victopress was like?” I asked.
“Yes, she was a woman,” he said and laughed. “Cannot you see her portrait?” he joked with me.
“What kind of woman?” I asked.
“Like a woman should be! She was very obliging and obedient to her husband and family. They say she never uttered an ill word. She never said no to her husband, always loved him, always, although he had many affairs. He loved many women and a man they say; he was a liberal! A true indulger and spendthrift! Even sold away all her jewels, but she didn’t say a word against him, neither in public nor in private. An ideal wife, you may say,” he said, and added, “wished my wife was like that!”
When I saw the portrait again, the smile was twitched, as if the lady was ashamed of something. And her eyes had changed now, they looked indignant, superior, as if they would scorch out your pupil and shave away your lips. Mutilate you, cut your limbs and throw you to monstrous dogs. Her hands were held, and her neck looked fragile, but her nose – you are late! You are late! Her hair – kill me or I will kill you!
The white muslin curtains along the windows watched me each time I passed the long hallway. Look, there he goes, there he goes, they whispered and shuffled. Look, look! Moving despite no wind — all the windows were shut — they laughed at me and rested to grasp for breath. Then again, moving and laughing, Look! There he goes, look! I sensed someone in white standing behind them as I walked. I could have shouted and called for Rouault. But the white figure was not chasing me. It wasn’t frightful, it just existed in its own world, as I existed in mine. It was waiting for someone, something, as I waited. It was not standing to frighten me; it was standing to stand.
It was the white figure. It was the white muslin curtain.
I am the master of my mind. I am the ocean.
When I opened the faucet of the cream-coloured basin in the bathroom attached to my bedroom of the dark mist, along with the flushing, flowing sound of the water, I heard the lizard of the house, dead, opening its eyes, and beginning to hunt. The rain was over and so was the rest. The game had begun, the lizard’s tale wagged, and her red mouth where no tongue, no palate, no blood could be discerned was wide and gaping, producing sounds that came from within the core of this house, as the water flushed and flowed down the basin. All kinds of muffled sounds, mingling with the water flow, away from the flow, different form the flow, in the flow. The white figure was standing behind me, hidden in my own stature as I looked in the mirror. How could I see it, it was latched so tightly, edging neatly the corners, so close to my hips, and breathing in the neck, fluttering my feelings inside, like Tabiya and her warmth, like my parents anguished worries. What would our child do? Would he ever be successful? What would become of him? That chill down the thighs, when someone naked rubbed against it, that rise, that fall, the shivering in the warming coldness. I closed the faucet and the lizard was dead again. No rumblings, no muffled noises, silence. Just Rouault coughing from beneath my room.
I stood amazed. The white figure had gone. I had never felt like this, it was strange, it was different. So, I wanted to feel it again. I opened the tap, the water poured against the cream marble of the sink, gushing into the drain, gurgling down the pipe. Silence. Silence. Silence. Silence. Silence. Disappointment.
I went into my bedroom and decided to go to sleep. Just as I was drifting into that phase of sleep when one can’t make out whether one is asleep or awake, someone began to rock me. Someone who had thick soft thighs that like a cushion held my head, promising they would never let it fall. My mother? Tabiya? Lady Victopress? I willed myself to sleep without daring to open my eyes, repeating the anthem that the psychiatrist had given me.
Three weeks passed, Lady Victopress didn’t say a word but her eyes changed colours. I told this to Rouault and he did believe me. He said that the weather changes the colour sometimes. I believed him like how I believed my psychiatrist saying that there were normal things and there were abnormal things. That I was normal, and due to some conditions had become abnormal and was pressed into normalcy again by my dear life-saver psychiatrist! How good he was! How good was my father whom I had never missed! How good was Rouault to have continued staying with me, even after I had told him clearly that I didn’t need him anymore, that I wasn’t afraid a drop now. But the good man remained, away from his wife. How bad was my mother, she died! How bad was Tabiya! Who abandoned me! How bad was Lady Victopress who had refused to talk! How good of me to know I was normal! How bad of me to know I was normal!
I struggled. Though when in the evenings I tapped along the wooden floor, they tapped too. While I cleaned my hands, they cleaned too, running the water in each of the sinks. When I murmured, they murmured too. The white figure sensed all that I sensed. The muslin curtains shuffling without a wind. I laughing for no reason while Rouault snored below. They doing what I did. They following me to the extent that it wasn’t clear who was the cause who was the effect, who was following who? I surrounded by them, or they were surrounded by me.
I repeating: “I am the sky, thoughts are clouds, don’t be afraid of the clouds, black or white! You are the master; you are the owner of your mind. You are the master. You are the ocean.”
But the moment I giggled, they giggled with me. The moment I opened my mouth, the lizard opened its wide mouth. A mouth turning black, rotting the redness of the delicate flesh. Someone sending me to sleep each night on its thigh, soft and supportive as a pillow, and I dared not move. And no anthem could push it away.
Lady Victopress began talking again from behind her closed lips. I have reached! I have reached! I am so close! You are early! You are never late! You are early! You are good! You were never late! I was attracted to her. How beautiful you are, I thought. I always overrule! She said.
When I woke up the next the morning, Rouault had gone to his wife. The house was entirely empty. Nothing stirred even as I opened the windows and the wind gushed in. No curtains moved. As I walked, no one walked behind me. I looked, but the white figure was missing. I opened the faucet and the only sound I heard was that of the water alone. Bad lizard, I thought. My head felt heavy and ached in one side. I couldn’t walk as usual, as if the trousers barred my steps. The house was gleaming with brightness when I began going down. My eyes didn’t seem to fit on my face. They were startled. How bright could I see! My lips quivered now and then, as if trying to sing a tune. My hands would dance and grace the stairs, the halls, the sitting parlour. Yet, I felt weak and was dying to sleep, but didn’t want to.
There was a knock on the door. I wasn’t able to walk. I was dragged while my body dashed. I was lagging behind, sleeping, sleeping, ready to go where dreams dared not arrive. My body at the door, its hands on the knob, turning it, about to fling the door open any minute. I had reached that ultimate tipping point where only a fine line separated dream and that which is beyond the dream. Where the mind was completely dislodged from the body, fading. This was strange. I had never felt like this. So, I wanted to feel it again. In an attempt to relieve that sharp edge that strained my wholeness, the fine line, precious and reassuring, that was beautiful to nudge, that would break my connection from this fleshy world, my hands opened the door, and there stood Mr. Rouault, all smiling, showing his teeth, taking my hand, he shook it heavily and said:
“How do you do Lady Victopress!”
Lady Victopress smiled, chimed her voice, and, firing arrows in the air, said: “You are late! You, are late! You are never on time.” And she smiled again.
I slept in a place beyond the dream – while away walked Lady Victopress into the streets of Oringo, with Mr. Rouault. She turned to let me see her neck, no creases, no wrinkles, proud and adamant, smooth and ravishing. She teased me and laughed, finally stretching her lips in a smile, staring with those bold eyes. The place was called death. While away walked Lady Victopress.
Sharuth Eiasa graduated in English Literature from Delhi University. His recent work includes a novel The Tidings Far Away, a play That Someone At the Door, and poems in couple of poetry anthologies. Apart from writing and literature, he is keenly interested in cinema, photography and philosophy.