by Deepannita Misra, Age 19, India
A CHILDISH FEAR
“Now, I’m going away for a few hours, alright? Just until twelve o’clock.”
The child nodded.
“It’s eight right now, see? By what time did I say I would be back?”
“By noon,” the child whispered back.
Yes, she had understood. Her Maa was leaving for school because she had landed her first job as a nursery-wing teacher. Bluebells Public School was a big name in Delhi, after all. And no, Maya wouldn’t be scared to spend four hours all by herself. It was no big deal. No problem at all, because she was Maa’s “my little intelligent Maya”.
But it would be a problem for Maa nevertheless. Just imagine, having to teach a class full of blathering babies throwing tantrums and crying with snot running down all the way to their lips and making a big mess. Maya had never been that difficult. Oh no, she had always been so intelligent. Always ten steps ahead of other kids her age. Always. Besides, she was no baby. She would turn eleven next month.
Now, she repeated Maa’s stale words of advice to herself, over and over like a meditative chant: Don’t open the door to strangers. Don’t forget to have your lunch. Don’t forget to drink water. And if in trouble, rush to Medha Aunty’s house next door.
The words were starting to clump into an unrecognizable mass within her head. She imagined them sticking to the back of her skull as if someone had plastered them there. She could probably make a song out of them. On second thought, it would make a weird song. Better not cross that line.
“Alright, goodbye Maya. Be a good girl,” Maa said, planting a wet, mango-scented kiss on her forehead. She’d clearly had a tall glass of mango shake for breakfast.
Maya wanted another kiss but Maa had already left, softly shutting the front door behind her. She had left behind a faint smell of mangoes. “My little intelligent Maya” was finally all by herself. Absolute freedom. Now how would she while away these four hours? The answer was television.
The clock ticked away but Maya did not budge from the sofa.
One hour, two hours, three and a half hours…the sofa had turned into a mess with its cushions strewn all across the floor, zig-zag lines disturbing the smooth, deep red covers, and bright yellow Uncle chips scattered across its length. It was half past eleven and she didn’t know for how long the T.V. had been blaring away. It felt like ages.
Don’t forget to have your lunch.
She set aside the remote, muting the T.V. Dangling one leg down casually, she stole a second glance at the clock. Just to be certain.
It was late. Maa would be back soon, and, oh dear, the sofa was indeed a mess, and she would be so angry with her that she might just scream: Maya! Look at what you’ve done!
But then it would also make her feel bad, and later she might have to buy an ice-cream to make up with “intelligent” Maya, and then…this could go on and on.
Yawning uncontrollably and stretching out her arms, Maya put her second leg down lazily. She had slid halfway down the sofa already. Better get up soon and have lunch. Better to get up before Maa arrived.
And then a strange thing happened.
“Aaah!” she shrieked suddenly, sitting upright with a jolt.
Something black and bushy had just brushed past her legs. Its shadow had vanished into the murky darkness underneath the centre table.
Maya froze. Slowly, she raised her legs to check if they were still intact.
What had it been—hideous, black and furry? What if it was a leopard, out to gobble up little girls? It could also be a tiger, all deadly, striped and sinister.
She was genuinely shivering now, heartbeat reverberating through her chest and cold sweat making her palms clammy.
“Who…who is it?” she whispered hoarsely into the silence.
Slowly swivelling her neck to the right, she saw it. Her eyes fastened upon a pair of haunting, deadpan mustard eyes set against an absolute, shiny black. Sweat beaded on her forehead. Her heart sank.
It was a black cat crouching by the door, staring at her intently.
“W-w-what do you…do you want?…” she whispered in its direction, utterly helpless.
“My little intelligent Maya” was not behaving intelligently, not at all. More like a fuzzy, fearful idiot. She clutched the edge of the sofa with her clammy fingers.
The cat stretched its hind limbs and rolled upon the floor languidly. But its languor had a feral quality to it. And then, fixing its gaze upon the green, glossy pack of Uncle chips in Maya’s hand, it looked back and forth—now eyeing Maya’s face and now the chips.
“No. Bad kitty,” Maya spoke in a level tone, trying to control the rising fear.
It gave a low, menacing growl.
A growl again.
For a few seconds, neither party dared to move. In the dead standstill that followed, the cat faced Maya with a feral expression—eyes hollow, whiskers trembling. It brought one leg forward determinedly, as if to pounce upon her any second. And it moved a quarter of an inch in her direction, soundlessly.
Absolutely rooted to the sofa, she dared not move. She could taste fear at the back of her throat, sour and rancid.
The cat came a little closer, and she shrank back, trying to make herself smaller and smaller.
The air around them froze into an absolute stillness. Then suddenly: “Maya, where are you? Open the door!” a voice rang urgently through the window. A knuckle rapped on the front door.
The cat jerked its head in that direction.
Giving a shrill cry of delight, Maya jumped from the sofa, scaring the cat away. It climbed up and out hurriedly through a second open window in the living room. It happened in a fraction of a second. And then Maya rushed to open the door.
“Maya, what’s wrong dear?” Maa asked.
Maya ran through the open door to circle her mother in an asphyxiating, tight embrace. It felt as if she would never let go, if that were possible.
“You wouldn’t understand,” she mumbled and began to whimper.
Tears trickled down her cheeks endlessly and dropped to the floor, alarming Maa. What was wrong with “my intelligent little Maya,” she just couldn’t seem to figure it out.
“It was that…the cat…and it sat there and kept looking…and you weren’t there…and oh, I missed you!” Maya’s words come out in a rapid jumble, all tangled and undecipherable. It was like trying to unravel a yarn of tangled wool. Maa didn’t catch the meaning of a single phrase.
“Honey, look at me!” she swiftly jerked Maya’s chin upwards. “What cat? Where?”
And then came the lengthy explanation, interspersed with sobs and hiccups. Maya pointed this way and that. She frantically tried to recreate the fear. She tried to explain the taste of fear to her mother. It had tasted sour and rancid. She tried. But she failed.
Maa burst out laughing. “Oh, Maya! You do say the funniest things. Who gets scared of a cat?” she spoke, bursting out into fits of laughter yet again.
“But…but it was huge…” Maya’s words turned into an incoherent whisper. She looked on incredulously for a moment. Then giving in, looking downwards with downcast eyes, she waited till Maa’s laughter had subsided. She went back inside, following the trail of Maa’s purple saree.
Thereafter, all she, “intelligent” Maya, would speak of about that day was that she would never again be so dumb as to be afraid of a mere cat. She had been a foolish child back then.
But the foolish child never forgot the taste of fear. It had been, and it remained till adulthood, a very tangible and real fear.
Deepannita Misra is a 19-year-old college freshman from India with an inherent love for reading and writing. Currently pursuing Literary Studies, she intends to make both these passions into her career. Needless to say that in her spare time too, she writes up a storm.