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"The Night of White Bhairab"
by Lucius Shepard


The Night of White Bhairab
(Part Three)

The shipment arrived late in the afternoon of the eighth day. Five enormous crates, each requiring the combined energies of Eliot and three Newari workmen to wrangle up to the third-floor room that housed Mr. Chatterji’s collection. After tipping the men, Eliot—sweaty, panting—sat down against the wall to catch his breath. The room was about twenty-five feet by fifteen but looked smaller because of the dozens of curious objects standing around the floor and mounted one above the other on the walls. A brass doorknob; a shattered door; a straight-backed chair whose arms were bound with a velvet rope to prevent anyone from sitting; a discolored sink; a mirror streaked by a brown stain; a slashed lampshade. They were all relics of some haunting or possession, some grotesque violence, and there were cards affixed to them testifying to the details and referring those who were interested to materials in Mr. Chatterji’s library. Sitting amidst these relics, the crates looked innocuous. Bolted shut, chest-high, branded with customs stamps.

When he had recovered, Eliot strolled around the room, amused by the care that Mr. Chatterji had squandered on his hobby; the most amusing thing was that no one except Mr. Chatterji was impressed by it: It provided travelers with a footnote for their journals. Nothing more.

A wave of dizziness swept over him—he had stood too soon—and he leaned against one of the crates for support. Jesus, he was in lousy shape! And then, as he blinked away the tangles of opaque cells drifting across his field of vision, the crate shifted. Just a little shift, as if something inside had twitched in its sleep. But palpable, real. He flung himself toward the door, backing away. A chill mapped every knob and articulation of his spine, and his sweat had evaporated, leaving clammy patches on his skin. The crate was motionless. But he was afraid to take his eyes off it, certain that if he did, it would release its pent-up fury. “Hi,” said Michaela from the doorway.

Her voice electrified Eliot. He let out a squawk and wheeled around, his hands outheld to ward off attack.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“Goddamn!” he said. “Don’t sneak up like that!” He remembered the crate and glanced back at it. “Listen, I was just locking . . .”

“I’m sorry,” she repeated, and walked past him into the room. “Ranjeesh is such an idiot about all this,” she said, running her hand over the top of the crate. “Don’t you think?”

Her familiarity with the crate eased Eliot’s apprehension. Maybe he had been the one who had twitched: a spasm of overstrained muscles. “Yeah, I guess.”

She walked over to the straight-backed chair, slipped off the velvet rope, and sat down. She was wearing a pale brown skirt and a plaid blouse that made her look schoolgirlish. “I want to apologize about the other day,” she said; she bowed her head, and the fall of her hair swung forward to obscure her face. “I’ve been having a bad time lately. I have trouble relating to people. To anything. But since we’re living here together, I’d like to be friends.” She stood and spread the folds of her skirt. “See? I even put on different clothes. I could tell the others offended you.”

The innocent sexuality of the pose caused Eliot to have a rush of desire. “Looks nice,” he said with forced casualness. “Why’ve you been having a bad time?”

She wandered to the door and gazed out. “Do you really want to hear about it?”

“Not if it’s painful for you.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, leaning against the doorframe. “I was in a band back in the States, and we were doing okay. Cutting an album, talking to record labels. I was living with the guitarist, in love with him. But then I had an affair. Not even an affair. It was stupid. Meaningless. I still don’t know why I did it. The heat of the moment, I guess. That’s what rock ’n’ roll’s all about, and maybe I was just acting out the myth. One of the other musicians told my boyfriend. That’s the way bands are—you’re friends with everyone, but never at the same time. See, I told this guy about the affair. We’d always confided. But one day he got mad at me over something. Something else stupid and meaningless.” Her chin was struggling to stay firm; the breeze from the courtyard drifted fine strands of hair across her face. “My boyfriend went crazy and beat up my lover. Whatever. My boyfriend killed him. It was an accident, but he tried to run, and the police shot him.”

Eliot wanted to stop her; she was obviously seeing it all again, seeing blood and police flashers and cold white morgue lights. But she was riding a wave of memory, borne along by its energy, and he knew that she had to crest with it, crash with it.

“I was out of it for a while. Dreamy. Nothing touched me. Not the funerals, the angry parents. I went away for months, to the mountains, and I started to feel better. But when I came home, I found that the musician who’d told my boyfriend had written a song about it. The affair, the killings. He’d cut a record. People were buying it, singing the hook when they walked down the street or took a shower. Dancing to it! They were dancing on blood and bones, humming grief, shelling out $5.98 for a jingle about suffering. Looking back, I realize I was crazy, but at the time everything I did seemed normal. More than normal. Directed, inspired. I bought a gun. A ladies’ model, the salesman said. I remember thinking how strange it was that there were male and female guns, just like with electric razors. I felt enormous carrying it. I had to be meek and polite or else I was sure people would notice how large and purposeful I was. It wasn’t hard to track down Ronnie—that’s the guy who wrote the song. He was in Germany, cutting a second album. I couldn’t believe it, I wasn’t going to be able to kill him! I was so frustrated that one night I went down to a park and started shooting. I missed everything. Out of all the bums and joggers and squirrels, I hit leaves and air. They locked me up after that. A hospital. I think it helped, but . . .” She blinked, waking from a trance. “But I still feel so disconnected, you know?”

Eliot carefully lifted away the strands of hair that had blown across her face and laid them back in place. Her smile flickered. “I know,” he said. “I feel that way sometimes.”

She nodded thoughtfully, as if to verify that she had recognized this quality in him.

* * *

They ate dinner in a Tibetan place in Temal; it had no name and was a dump with flyspecked tables and rickety chairs, specializing in water buffalo and barley soup. But it was away from the city center, which meant they could avoid the worst of the festival crowds. The waiter was a young Tibetan wearing jeans and a T-shirt that bore the legend MAGIC IS THE ANSWER; the earphones of a personal stereo dangled about his neck. The walls—visible through a haze of smoke—were covered with snapshots, most featuring the waiter in the company of various tourists, but a few showing an older Tibetan in blue robes and turquoise jewelry, carrying an automatic rifle; this was the owner, one of the Khampa tribesmen who had fought a guerrilla war against the Chinese. He rarely put in an appearance at the restaurant, and when he did, his glowering presence tended to dampen conversation.

Over dinner, Eliot tried to steer clear of topics that might unsettle Michaela. He told her about Sam Chipley’s clinic, the time the Dalai Lama had come to Katmandu, the musicians at Swayambhunath. Cheerful, exotic topics. Her listlessness was such an inessential part of her that Eliot was led to chip away at it, curious to learn what lay beneath; and the more he chipped away, the more animated her gestures, the more luminous her smile became. This was a different sort of smile than she had displayed on their first meeting. It came so suddenly over her face, it seemed an autonomic reaction, like the opening of a sunflower, as if she were facing not you but the principle of light upon which you were grounded. It was aware of you, of course, but it chose to see past the imperfections of the flesh and know the perfected thing you truly were. It boosted your sense of worth to realize that you were its target, and Eliot—whose sense of worth was at low ebb—would have done pratfalls to sustain it. Even when he told his own story, he told it as a joke, a metaphor for American misconceptions of oriental pursuits.

“Why don’t you quit it?” she asked. “The meditation, I mean. If it’s not working out, why keep on with it?”

“My life’s in perfect suspension,” he said. “I’m afraid that if I quit practicing, if I change anything, I’ll either sink to the bottom or fly off.” He tapped his spoon against his cup, signaling for more tea. “You’re not really going to marry Ranjeesh, are you?” he asked, and was surprised at the concern he felt that she actually might.

“Probably not.” The waiter poured their tea, whispery drumbeats issuing from his earphones. “I was just feeling lost. You see, my parents sued Ronnie over the song, and I ended up with a lot of money—which made me feel even worse . . . She touched his wrist, reassuring, and the skin remained warm after her fingers had withdrawn. “Anyway,” she went on, “I decided to travel, and all the strangeness . . . I don’t know. I was starting to slip away. Ranjeesh was a kind of sanctuary.”

Eliot was vastly relieved.

Outside, the streets were thronged with festivalgoers, and Michaela took Eliot’s arm and let him guide her through the crowds. Newars wearing Nehru hats and white trousers that bagged at the hips and wrapped tightly around the calves; groups of tourists, shouting and waving bottles of rice beer; Indians in white robes and saris. The air was spiced with incense, and the strip of empurpled sky above was so regularly patterned with stars that it looked like a banner draped between the roofs. Near the house, a wild-eyed man in a blue satin robe rushed past, bumping into them, and he was followed by two boys dragging a goat, its forehead smeared with crimson powder: a sacrifice.

“This is crazy!” Michaela laughed.

“It’s nothing. Wait’ll tomorrow night.”

“What happens then?”

“The night of White Bhairab.” Eliot put on a grimace. “You’ll have to watch yourself. Bhairab’s a lusty, wrathful sort.”

She laughed again and gave his arm an affectionate squeeze.

Inside the house, the moon—past full, blank and golden—floated dead center on the square of night sky admitted by the roof. They stood close together in the courtyard, silent, suddenly awkward.

“I enjoyed tonight,” said Michaela; she leaned forward and brushed his cheek with her lips. “Thank you,” she whispered.

Eliot caught her as she drew back, tipped her chin, and kissed her mouth. Her lips parted, her tongue darted out. Then she pushed him away. “I’m tired,” she said, her face tightened with anxiety. She walked off a few steps, but stopped and turned back. “If you want to . . . to be with me, maybe it’ll be all right. We could try.”

Eliot went to her and took her hands. “I want to make love with you,” he said, no longer trying to hide his urgency. And that was what he wanted: to make love. Not to ball or bang or screw or any other inelegant version of the act.

But it was not love they made.

Under the starlit blaze of Mr. Chatterji’s ceiling, she was very beautiful, and at first she was very loving, moving with a genuine involvement; then abruptly, she quit moving altogether and turned her face to the pillow. Her eyes were glistening. Left alone atop her, listening to the animal sound of his breathing, the impact of his flesh against hers, Eliot knew he should stop and comfort her. But the months of abstinence, the eight days of wanting her, all this fused into a bright flare in the small of his back, a reactor core of lust that irradiated his conscience, and he continued to plunge into her, hurrying to completion. She let out a gasp when he withdrew, and curled up, facing away from him.

“God, I’m so sorry,” she said, her voice cracking.

Eliot shut his eyes. He felt sickened, reduced to the bestial. It had been like two mental patients doing nasty on the sly, two fragments of people who together didn’t form a whole. He understood now why Mr. Chatterji wanted to marry her: He planned to add her to his collection, to enshrine her with the other splinters of violence. And each night he would complete his revenge, substantiate his cultural overview, by making something less than love with this sad, inert girl, this American ghost. Her shoulders shook with muffled sobs. She needed someone to console her, to help her find her own strength and capacity for love. Eliot reached out to her, willing to do his best. But he knew it shouldn’t be him.

Several hours later, after she had fallen asleep, unconsolable, Eliot sat in the courtyard, thoughtless, dejected, staring at a rubber plant. It was mired in shadow, its leaves hanging limp. He had been staring for a couple of minutes when he noticed that a shadow in back of the plant was swaying ever so slightly; he tried to make it out, and the swaying subsided. He stood. The chair scraped on the concrete, sounding unnaturally loud. His neck prickled, and he glanced behind him. Nothing. Ye Olde Mental Fatigue, he thought. Ye Olde Emotional Strain. He laughed, and the clarity of the laugh—echoing up through the empty well—alarmed him; it seemed to stir little flickers of motion everywhere in the darkness. What he needed was a drink! The problem was how to get into the bedroom without waking Michaela. Hell, maybe he should wake her. Maybe they should talk more before what had happened hardened into a set of unbreakable attitudes.

He turned toward the stairs . . . and then, yelling out in panic, entangling his feet with the lawn chairs as he leaped backward midstep, he fell onto his side. A shadow—roughly man-shaped and man-sized—was standing a yard away; it was undulating the way a strand of kelp undulates in a gentle tide. The patch of air around it was rippling, as if the entire image had been badly edited into reality. Eliot scrambled away, coming to his knees. The shadow melted downward, puddling on the concrete; it bunched in the middle like a caterpillar, folded over itself, and flowed after him: a rolling sort of motion. Then it reared up, again assuming its manlike shape, looming over him.

Eliot got to his feet, still frightened, but less so. If he had previously been asked to testify as to the existence of the Khaa, he would have rejected the evidence of his bleared senses and come down on the side of hallucination, folktale. But now, though he was tempted to draw that same conclusion, there was too much evidence to the contrary. Staring at the featureless black cowl of the Khaa’s head, he had a sense of something staring back. More than a sense. A distinct impression of personality. It was as if the Khaa’s undulations were producing a breeze that bore its psychic odor through the air. Eliot began to picture it as a loony, shy old uncle who liked to sit under the basement steps and eat flies and cackle to himself, but who could tell when the first frost was due and knew how to fix the tail on your kite. Weird, yet harmless. The Khaa stretched out an arm: The arm just peeled away from its torso, its hand a thumbless black mitten. Eliot edged back. He wasn’t quite prepared to believe it was harmless. But the arm stretched farther than he had thought possible and enveloped his wrist. It was soft, ticklish, a river of furry moths crawling over his skin.

In the instant before he jumped away, Eliot heard a whining note inside his skull, and that whining—seeming to flow through his brain with the same suppleness that the Khaa’s arm had displayed—was translated into a wordless plea. From it he understood that the Khaa was afraid. Terribly afraid. Suddenly it melted downward and went rolling, bunching, flowing up the stairs; it stopped on the first landing, rolled halfway down, then up again, repeating the process over and over. It came clear to Eliot (Oh, Jesus! This is nuts!) that it was trying to convince him to follow. Just like Lassie or some other ridiculous TV animal, it was trying to tell him something, to lead him to where the wounded forest ranger had fallen, where the nest of baby ducks was being threatened by the brush fire. He should walk over, rumple its head, and say, “What’s the matter, girl? Those squirrels been teasing you?” This time his laughter had a sobering effect, acting to settle his thoughts. One likelihood was that his experience with Michaela had been sufficient to snap his frayed connection with consensus reality; but there was no point in buying that. Even if that were the case, he might as well go with it. He crossed to the stairs and climbed toward the rippling shadow on the landing.

“Okay, Bongo,” he said. “Let’s see what’s got you so excited.”

* * *

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5