I woke up to the sound of the rain hammering down on the window.
A melancholic darkness enveloped every crevice of the room. From my bed, I could see little droplets of rain gathering against the windowpane like tiny beads of pearls. Their existence was momentary though. They succumbed to the streams of water which trickled down from above and washed them away, replacing them with newer droplets.
The monsoon has been rather early to arrive this year. Although the window was shut closed, I could feel a strong chill seeping into my bones.
I have a thing for rainy days. Everyone in our family does, except my sister.
At the slightest hint of a cloud-dressed sky, I snuggle up in my bed with a book by Humayun Ahmed and immerse myself in his magically knitted universe.
Ma rolls up her sleeves to rustle up some fancy rainy day themed meals for us. If Baba is home, he plays Rabindra Sangeet on the antique cassette player he inherited from my grandfather. I love the part when his favorite song “Nishito Raater Badoldhara” comes up on the playlist and he hums to it, exchanging shy smiles with my mother.
Apu juggles between sneaking in naps and complaining about our pointless enthusiasm for the ‘stupid rain’.
But lately, things have been different. The inexplicable events of last month have hurled our lives into chaos.
We came over to Khalamoni’s place yesterday from the hospital, to wait out here till we figured out a way to resolve our crisis. Khalu and my cousin were off to Rangpur to attend a wedding. Luckily, Khalamoni had to stay back because of an emergency at her school.
As I headed out of my cousin’s room, I was overjoyed to find Apu and Ma sitting together at the dining table. Apu smiled at me warmly.
Her smile melted my heart. It has been three days since her miscarriage and I could only imagine how strenuous it must have been for her, reeling from a loss of this magnitude. She has remained unusually laid-back ever since. So it instilled a sense of warmth in me to catch the dimple on her left cheek spring back to life. It was like a glimmer of hope sprouting from an abyss of pain.
Ma appeared relaxed as well. The dark circles rimming her eyes however made her look worn down. After noticing me, she energetically said, “Your Khalamoni is cooking biryani for you.”
I heard Khalamoni’s enthusiastic shout from the kitchen, “Sweetheart, I’m preparing a spicy rendition of the beef curry for you!”
I yelled back a “thank you”. Then planting myself in the chair next to my sister, I began to munch on a biscuit.
“Where’s Baba?” I asked Ma.
“He went to find the Imam of our mosque. We have to enter that wretched apartment again to get our stuff. He thought it would be more prudent to talk to the Imam beforehand.”
“Where will we go?”
“I don’t know. For the time being, we’ll unload our furniture at Maruf Bhai’s garage. And we’ll be staying here till we find a new apartment. I’m sure Ranu won’t mind.”
Khalamoni squealed from the kitchen, “Surely I will!”
Ma smiled, exuding a sense of relief.
Apu broke out of her characteristic silence and said, “Babush, we need to talk!” She has this annoying habit of addressing me by laughable names; Babush lies on the relatively less embarrassing end of that spectrum.
“About what?” I asked.
“About the things we experienced.”
“Mili, leave it please. That chapter is closed now.” Ma said tenderly.
“No, Ma. We can’t pretend that nothing happened. Not anymore.” Apu could barely speak.
I interjected, “What do we talk about anyway? None of what happened there made any sense.”
“Well, we’ve never really had that conversation. There were a number of unusual things that caught my attention. But let’s begin with you. You must have seen something bizarre! Although it seemed to me that you were quite unmoved by everything.” Apu’s eyes hovered over me.
Ma’s face hardened, “Whatever there was at the apartment can still hurt us.”
“No, Ma I think we’re out of its reach here. Look at yourself! Back home, you could barely walk due to your pain. Where’s your arthritis now, Ma?”
Turning to me, Apu softly said, “Niloy, you begin.”
In the meantime, our highly energetic Khalamoni joined us. Wiping away the sweat on her forehead with the back of her hand, she tidily piled up the used tea cups and plates from the table and enthusiastically revealed, “The beef’s done. I’ll try out that new egg curry recipe I saw in the newspaper now! ”
I silently thanked her for her efforts to make everything appear normal. We desperately needed this.
Ma affectionately clutched Khalamoni’s hands, “No, you’re not cooking anything else.”
“Okay, I’ll just wash these and be back,” She smirked and went back to the kitchen.
Recollecting my thoughts, I started, “At the moment, I can recall this peculiar dream that I used to have. I may have seen the same dream twice or thrice.”
“I saw two pythons, one black and the other white, slithering out of our freezer. They were so strong that they were able to lift up the lid of our freezer with their heads. Then with lightning speed, one of them glided towards Ma’s room and the other, towards yours.”
Both Ma and Apu looked at me with startled eyes.
“Why didn’t you mention this to any of us before?” Apu sounded baffled.
“To be honest, now I realise how different I was at that apartment. I didn’t feel like I should talk to you about something as eerie as this. Oh wait! There was this other dream I had once—I saw Nanmoni standing at my door, her back facing me and her eyes fixated on something in the corridor leading up to my room. She counted her prayer beads and seemed to be muttering a verse. It felt as if she were trying to protect me from something. This was the first time I saw her in a dream after her death.”
Everyone was stunned into silence. I could see beads of perspiration collecting on Ma’s forehead. Apu however, seemed strangely composed this time.
I began again, “I never realised that the dreams I had were this strange up until today. I was stuck in a thoughtless trance—as if I were under a spell! Something was walling me off from the truth.”
“There were nights when I woke up to deafening banging noises on my balcony door. The noises stopped after I woke up. I used to get confused over whether I was dreaming or if it actually happened.”
“And there was this terrible smell—a pungent stench of rotten meat that seemed to float in from the corridor outside my room. The strange part is I always closed that door before sleeping, but every time I woke up to that smell, I found the door open. And for reasons I don’t know, it didn’t strike me as unnatural. I felt nothing at all; not fear, not surprise, not suspicion—nothing! I felt like an empty vessel.” I smiled awkwardly, trying to diffuse the tension.
“Speaking of the stench—I also experienced that. You know the night that happened.” Apu’s voice began to catch in her throat again.
I felt a sharp pang of pain at that reference. I wish I could wipe away that memory. Ma and I were asleep in our respective rooms. All of a sudden, there was this ear-splitting scream from Apu’s room. We rushed there, turned on the lights and saw her trembling violently in her bed. Her face and neck were drenched in sweat and her hands were pointing at something towards the window unsteadily. She was trying to say something but could not muster anything except muffled cries.
Then the red patches of blood between her thighs caught our eye. She however, was unaware of that and more concerned about the invisible thing lurking around the window. It was only a second later that she looked down at her clothes, saw the blood, and realised what she had lost. At first it was just a teardrop trickling down her cheek. It was followed by a violent scream. Shortly after, she fainted in Ma’s arms.
Apu began to speak:
“Remember the night when Arnob stayed over? We were up late, bickering over our baby’s name, when we heard heavy footsteps approaching from our dining room. Arnob went outside to check and when he came back, he looked unusually distressed. He didn’t tell me anything that night but yesterday when we were talking over the phone and I insisted that I need to know, he confessed. Apparently, he saw a grey-haired, middle-aged woman sitting at our dining table. She disappeared the instant his eyes met hers.”
“Then, this other night, when I went to the dining room to pour myself a glass of water, I heard a commotion in the kitchen. What unfolded before me after I went there scared me out of my skin.”
“The lights in the kitchen were turned off but I could hear the clanging of dishes. When I turned on the lights, I saw Ma! Wearing a flamboyant red sari with heavy jewellery and makeup, she was washing dishes in the dark! When I confronted her about what she was doing, she fell from the sky. She had no clue at all!”
Swallowing a lump in her throat, Ma said, “It’s true that I used to dress up like a bride in the middle of the night. But sweetheart, as Niloy said, none of it struck me as unusual then. It felt like a part of my regular routine. Now the mere thought of it makes my spine tingle.”
“But back at that apartment, everything appeared so blurry. Every time you tried to confront me about it, you saw how my arthritic pain flared up so much that we could not proceed with the conversation.”
Ma paused for a breath and added, “The thing that struck me as abnormal back there was hearing two voices whispering to each other in a language I didn’t understand. I couldn’t quite place where they were coming from. At times they seemed to be coming from the balcony; sometimes from the corridor; sometimes from right behind me. More often than not, I heard the voices in broad daylight. It’s true that it scared me but not to the point that I would speculate something paranormal was involved.”
Apu squinted as if she had been trying to remember something. Then she spoke, “I used to hear ghostly noises in the house a lot. Sounds of footsteps, voices and whatnot. But I didn’t give it much thought until the night I saw Ma like that. That night, I was convinced that something was wrong. Niloy seemed distant and Ma’s arthritic pain, coupled with her dressing up, didn’t make sense. I felt like I was the only one among the three of us to grasp that something was really off.”
Every time I tried bringing up this topic, the three of us ended up having a heated argument which was so unlike us! And of course, Ma would then begin to writhe in pain. I wanted to tell Baba everything over the phone but I didn’t wish to add to his worries. You two were being so woefully ignorant about everything that I just didn’t know what to do!”
I felt riddled with guilt at that accusation.
I said, “Apu, what exactly did you see that night before we came?”
“Well, I dozed off around midnight. I remember having this curious dream—I saw a woman, burying a tiny corpse in a graveyard. I couldn’t see her face but the little corpse, wrapped up in white, looked so fragile that it brought tears to my eyes.”
“Everything began to spiral into chaos when I abruptly woke up.”
“My room felt frozen! I thought of collecting my blanket from the cupboard; but before I could get out of bed, I heard a huge thud on the floor, right next to the cupboard, as if something very heavy had fallen from the ceiling.”
“An offensive odour of stale meat swiftly swept through the room. A wave of dread washed over me. I worried if you two were alright. Then I spotted an indistinct shadow with a humanoid shape—crawling on all fours—or so it seemed. It dragged itself up to my bed and lingered next to my foot. Although I could only make out its silhouette, I sensed that it was staring at me; I felt it wanted to hurt me. But then it seemed to falter for a second and jumped right out of the window. That’s when I could gather the strength to let out a scream. My heart was beating so fast that I felt it would explode.”
As she laid bare the horrors of that night, tears began to well up in her eyes. Ma wrapped her arms around her to comfort her.
“You know what I think?” Apu kept speaking in her broken voice, “I have a feeling that my baby was protecting me. You know the whole thing about little babies being angels and having a shield of positive energy around them? That’s probably why I wasn’t blind to what was happening around me like you two were. Whatever was there couldn’t directly get to me or cloud my judgment. That night, when that monster came to get me, I feel it was my baby that stopped it and made it jump out of the window. I escaped unharmed because my little angel died protecting me.”
I heaved a sigh. After everything we have experienced, how could we still be choosy about believing what was possible and what was not?
That night at the hospital, after Apu regained consciousness, she frantically warned us not to go back to that house. We were lucky that Baba was on his way to Dhaka that day. He showed up directly at the hospital an hour later.
By that time, the curtains had lifted and both Ma and I felt that something was not quite right about that place. Although we decided not to return to that apartment, that night Baba and I had to go back to retrieve Apu’s prescriptions and medical reports as her doctors needed them.
On our way home, Baba fell down the stairs of our building and injured his knees. He began to bleed and could barely stand when we entered our apartment. I managed to find an antibiotic ointment and some gauze in Ma’s medicine box. An earlier drizzle had transformed into a storm that night. As a regular addition to downpours, the electricity of the entire locality went out. As I waited for the backup generators to start, I could feel panic rising up in my chest. I knew we needed to hurry. Having bandaged his knees using the light from my phone’s torch, I proceeded towards Apu’s room to fetch her medical files. I was rummaging through her drawer when I heard Baba’s shaky voice from the next room, “Niloy!”
I rushed to him. He grabbed my hand and said, “We have to leave now!” He didn’t say anything else, but this time even I could feel that something was out of place.
We raced out of the apartment. On our way down the stairs in the darkness, we stumbled and hurt ourselves but still didn’t pause for breath. I swear I could hear footsteps and a gush of hot air following us as we darted out of that nightmare.
The sound of the doorbell drew me out of this ghastly flashback.
Relief washed over us when we saw Baba entering. However, he wore a troubled expression on his face. We were surprised to find Nahar Aunty trailing behind him. She lived just across the hall from our ‘haunted’ apartment.
“Bhabi. I’m so sorry to show up unannounced. Saw Bhai at the building today and heard about your daughter from him. Wanted to check up on you,” Nahar Aunty remarked politely.
“Bhabi, we’re so happy to see you,” Ma said with a smile. Apu and I also smiled and greeted her. She took a seat at our dining table with us.
Baba spoke: “I wasn’t able to meet Imam shaheb. But you won’t believe what happened. I got a call from our caretaker saying there was an emergency. Apparently, they saw smoke coming out of our apartment and were afraid it could be a fire. They decided to break in and asked me if I could come. At first it occurred to me I should decline. But then I thought since it’s broad daylight and I wouldn’t be alone, there was no harm.”
Baba’s deep voice reverberated, “So, the two caretakers took me inside our apartment and I still can’t piece together what I saw.”
“There was no trace of fire or smoke inside. But all our furniture—wardrobes, dining table, beds—everything had been neatly turned upside down on the floor!”
“And to top it all, there were scratch marks on the ceiling, the floor tiles and the wood of our furniture. Slender but deep and two claws only. I couldn’t think of any animal whose claws were strong enough to pierce through concrete or tiles like that. It was brutal!”
“We saw similar scratch marks on Alam!” Nahar Aunty blurted out.
Puzzled, all of us turned to her.
She mumbled, “I’m so sorry. I should’ve told you this before but I didn’t want you to worry. I did try asking Bhabi about your apartment and if anything was wrong. She said things were fine.”
“I wasn’t myself, Bhabi.” Ma said sadly.
“Understandably, Bhabi. That apartment has a spine-chilling history I’m afraid.”
Taking a deep breath, she continued, “A woman moved in here two months before you came. Her name was Zaitun. A short, lean and silver-haired woman, probably in her late fifties. We didn’t know what she did for a living or where she was from. She never spoke to any of us. Truth be told, given her unnatural demeanor, we weren’t particularly keen on striking up a conversation with her either. We frequently saw strange people lining up outside her door to meet her.”
“She lived with her mentally disabled daughter who had to be chained. Sometimes, Zaitun would be gone for days, dressed up as a bride as she left. She would leave the keys with our previous caretaker, Alam, so that he could feed her daughter.”
“According to Alam, the girl could gobble up plate after plate of food in seconds. She spoke in a different voice occasionally; some of her tones were exceedingly masculine. She could also speak fluent Arabic and other languages Alam didn’t understand. Apart from such bizarre behaviour, she was normal. Often, she would burst into tears and beg Alam to take her away from her mother. He didn’t pay any heed to her words given her mental state but eventually he grew to foster a sense of affection towards her, which overpowered his fear of her.
We were perturbed by Alam’s accounts but didn’t think of anything other than mental illness. We held her mother responsible in our hearts for her not getting proper medical attention.
Alam also maintained contact with the owner of that apartment who lived overseas. He told us they were close relatives of the owner. Hence, even if we wanted, we couldn’t ask them to leave although we were distraught by their presence.
One night, I heard a knock on my door. I opened it to find Zaitun in tears. Finding her at my doorstep at midnight terrified me. But this time she didn’t look daunting, only anxious. She begged me to take her daughter to a hospital. I saw blood on the woman’s hands.
I called an ambulance and helped them to the hospital. I was surprised to see the swollen belly of her daughter. She was drenched in blood from the waist down. What I could understand from that scenario was that she had gotten pregnant somehow and her mother was attempting to abort the baby. Her efforts had clearly taken a wrong turn. The girl was bleeding excessively, had raging fever, and was gasping for air. It was heartbreaking to see the poor girl. After being admitted to hospital, her condition improved slowly. I dropped by the following morning to check up on them. I was relieved to hear from the doctors that she was out of danger.
Minutes after this reassuring statement from them, the duty staff frantically informed me that the girl was missing from her cabin. They could not explain how; they were equally astonished! The CCTV footage of her room was missing and that of the adjacent lobby or corridor revealed no trace of her. I rushed to inform Zaitun; she only looked at me calmly. Without saying a word, then she left the hospital.
We never saw Zaitun afterwards. But that incident sparked off an unexplainable chain of events. The kids in our building started falling sick for no apparent reason. People started spotting Zaitun’s daughter on the stairs. I myself saw shadows lurking about in our kitchen and corridor. We kept hearing inhumane screams coming from that apartment at night.
Alam gradually went mad. He would quiver in fear for no apparent reason and curse at invisible beings. He hardly recognised us. One morning, we found him dead in our garage. We saw claw marks, like the ones Bhai described, on his chest! He appeared to have bled to death.
We could all speculate that it was somehow linked to that apartment. So we stormed the place. We discovered many weird things inside—pieces of parchment with mysterious symbols, threads tied in strange-shaped knots, dolls, bones and whatnot.
We learned from the Imam afterwards that these articles were used for devil worship!
We also found two odd looking pythons—one black and the other white, slithering around her bathroom! How two snakes were able to get into a four-storied apartment was beyond me. We locked them in the bathroom and went to fetch sticks and bags and get help, but when we returned, they were gone. We carefully checked everywhere since we were worried sick but found nothing.
We requested the Imam of our mosque to perform a cleansing ritual. The day he came, he just stood by the door of the apartment, chanted a few verses and said that it was not within his capacity to deal with what lurked inside. He recommended consulting a reputed scholar he had crossed paths with years ago, experienced in dealing with such cases. That person came a week later and performed the appropriate ritual.
This man was a fascinating personality. I invited him to our apartment for tea after the rituals, which he was too polite to decline. He was quite young, in his late thirties perhaps; his long black beard and thick framed spectacles made him look very wise for his age. He had a smile permanently glued on his lips. He seemed to exude a holy aura.
In the warm conversation we shared, he told us that he was originally from Egypt; he even had a master’s degree in Economics from Cairo University! He came to explore Bangladesh ten years ago and met a Sufi traveller here who bestowed this gift on him and changed the way he viewed the world. Following that encounter, he stayed back in Bangladesh. He runs a small madrasa in a remote village in the outskirts of Chittagong and occasionally travels around to help troubled people.
Our home was teeming with neighbours when they heard he was here. We were all curious to learn about the apartment. He was hesitating at the beginning but eventually, in his highly eloquent Bangla, he told us everything.
Upon entering the apartment, he had encountered two djinns. After establishing communication with them, he had unearthed everything about this place.
He learnt that Zaitun used them to carry out requests from customers who sought her help. Revenge, casting spells, manipulation, even murder, if necessary. The woman used her daughter to summon these spirits—there was something special about the girl which made her an ideal vessel for such rituals.
The djinns also mentioned their third companion, who happened to be very malicious and much stronger than them; Zaitun herself couldn’t control him entirely but found him very useful for her darkest schemes. This unruly one had latched himself on to her daughter and was also the reason she got pregnant.
Seeing our astonishment, he explained that such instances were exceedingly rare but happened nonetheless.
Years of black magic had made Zaitun heartless. Fed up of the djinn’s unruliness, she tried to get rid of his baby to punish him, totally disregarding the condition of her own daughter. This infuriated him. As his ultimate act of rebellion, he had snatched away her daughter and fled.
The djinns he saw were still bound to the apartment because of Zaitun’s enchantments; they were the ones responsible for the peculiar events.
Bashar Bhai from downstairs asked him why Alam had to die like this. Holding the same malicious djinn responsible, the scholar said that maybe he saw something he was not meant to see. When asked about the pythons, he explained that certain djinns could take the shape of animals to deceive people.
All of this would have seemed like a perfectly plotted horror story, but a story nonetheless, on any other day. Claims that could have been temporarily relished but easily laughed off afterwards. But given our experience and the man’s credentials, none of us had any doubts about what he said.
Upon our concerns over our safety, he told us that he freed the two djinns upon the binding condition that they would never harm any human. While he couldn’t get to the other djinn, he did seal the place with certain prayers that would ward off malevolent spirits. He promised us he would return after a month to perform the cleansing ritual one more time.
But when the time came, we weren’t able to reach him. The Imam who introduced us to him could not get in touch with him either. We were awfully anxious over this and felt worse when we saw your family shifting here! But truth be told, we didn’t have a say in who could move in or not. But as the weird incidents had stopped altogether and things seemed normal, we didn’t feed you the intimidating backstory.”
Nahar Aunty looked relieved to get it all off her chest.
“I’ve got something to add too.” Baba’s voice cracked as he began, “That night, when Niloy was fetching Mili’s stuff and I was sitting with my injured knee on our sofa, I saw something trying to crawl towards Mili’s room. It resembled a human shape but it was on all fours. It gave me such a creepy feeling that I knew we had to leave.”
My mouth fell wide open.
We had tied ourselves in knots trying to understand the things that had transpired. Now with all the information, it was finally possible to connect the dots.
As the day wore on, the sound of the rain rose in pitch as did the growling of the thunder.
Leaving the dining table conversation, I came out to the balcony to get some fresh air. It was hard absorbing the conversation from the last hour. I realised how blessed our family was to have survived this ordeal. Not that we emerged unhurt but things could have easily been worse.
Suddenly, that familiar odour of stale meat wafted up from nowhere, rapidly dispelling the freshness of the rain-soaked wind. And I heard voices whispering in an unfamiliar language.
But as Ma had told us, there weren’t just two voices.
There were many. And they all sounded so angry.