The waiting room of Sam Chipleys clinic was crowded with Newari mothers
and children, who giggled as Eliot did a bowlegged shuffle through their midst.
Sams wife led him into the examination room, where Sama burly,
bearded man, his long hair tied in a ponytailhelped him onto a surgical
Holy shit! he said after inspecting the injury. What you been
into, man? He began rubbing ointment into the bruises.
Accident, gritted Eliot, trying not to cry out.
Yeah, I bet, said Sam. Maybe a sexy little accident who had a
change of heart when it come down to strokes. You know, not gettin it
steady might tend to make you a tad intense for some ladies, man. Ever think
Thats not how it was. Am I all right?
Yeah, but you aint gonna be superstud for a while. Sam went
to the sink and washed his hands. Dont gimme that innocent
bullshit. You were tryin to slip it to Chatterjis new squeeze,
You know her?
He brought her over one day, showin her off. Shes a head
case, man. You should know better.
Will I be able to run?
Sam laughed. Not hardly.
Listen, Sam. Eliot sat up, winced. Chatterjis lady.
Shes in bad trouble, and Im the only one who can help her. I have
to be able to run, and I need something to keep me awake. I havent slept
for a couple of days.
I aint givin you pills, Eliot. You can stagger through your
doper phase without my help. Sam finished drying his hands and went to
sit on a stool beside the window; beyond the window was a brick wall, and atop
it a string of prayer flags snapped in the breeze.
Im not after a supply, damn it! Just enough to keep me going
tonight. This is important, Sam!
Sam scratched his neck. What kind of trouble she in?
I cant tell you now, said Eliot, knowing that Sam would laugh
at the idea of something as metaphysically suspect as the Khaa. But I
will tomorrow. Its not illegal. Come on, man! Theres got to be
something you can give me.
Oh, I can fix you up. I can make you feel like King Shit on Coronation
Day. Sam mulled it over. Okay, Eliot. But you get your ass back
here tomorrow and tell me whats happenin. He gave a snort of
amusement. All I can say is, it must be some strange damn trouble for you
to be the only one who can save her.
* * *
After wiring Mr. Chatterji, urging him to come home at once, Eliot returned to
the house and unscrewed the hinges of the front door. He was not certain that
Aim�e would be able to control the house, to slam doors and make windows stick
as she had with her house in New Hampshire, but he didnt want to take any
chances. As he lifted the door and set it against the wall of the alcove, he
was amazed by its lightness; he felt possessed of a giddy strength, capable of
heaving the door up through the well of the courtyard and over the roofs. The
cocktail of painkillers and speed was working wonders. His groin ached, but the
ache was distant, far removed from the center of his consciousness, which was a
fount of well-being. When he had finished with the door, he grabbed some fruit
juice from the kitchen and went back to the alcove to wait.
In midafternoon Michaela came downstairs. Eliot tried to talk to her, to
convince her to leave, but she warned him to keep away and scuttled back to her
room. Then, around five oclock, the burning woman appeared, floating a
few feet above the courtyard floor. The sun had withdrawn to the upper third of
the well, and her fiery silhouette was inset into slate-blue shadow, the flames
of her hair dancing about her head. Eliot, who had been hitting the painkillers
heavily, was dazzled by her: Had she been a hallucination, she would have made
his All-Time Top Ten. But even realizing that she was not, he was too drugged
to relate to her as a threat. He snickered and shied a piece of broken pot at
her. She shrank to an incandescent point, vanished, and that brought home to
him his foolhardiness. He took more speed to counteract his euphoria, and did
stretching exercises to loosen the kinks and to rid himself of the cramped
sensation in his chest.
Twilight blended the shadows in the courtyard, celebrants passed in the street,
and he could hear distant drums and cymbals. He felt cut off from the city, the
festival. Afraid. Not even the presence of the Khaa, half-merged with the
shadows along the wall, served to comfort him. Near dusk, Aim�e Cousineau
walked into the courtyard and stopped about twenty feet away, staring at him.
He had no desire to laugh or throw things. At this distance he could see that
her eyes had no whites or pupils or irises. They were dead black. One moment
they seemed to be the bulging heads of black screws threaded into her skull;
the next they seemed to recede into blackness, into a cave beneath a mountain
where something waited to teach the joys of Hell to whoever wandered in. Eliot
sidled closer to the door. But she turned, climbed the stairs to the second
landing, and walked down Michaelas hallway.
Eliots waiting began in earnest.
An hour passed. He paced between the door and the courtyard. His mouth was
cottony; his joints felt brittle, held together by frail wires of speed and
adrenaline. This was insane! All he had done was to put them in worse danger.
Finally he heard a door close upstairs. He backed into the street, bumping into
two Newari girls, who giggled and skipped away. Crowds of people were moving
toward Durbar Square.
Michaelas voice. Hed expected a hoarse demon voice, and when she
walked into the alcove, her white scarf glowing palely against the dark air, he
was surprised to see that she was unchanged. Her features held no trace of
anything other than her usual listlessness.
Im sorry I hurt you, she said, walking toward him. I
know you didnt do anything. I was just upset about last night.
Eliot continued to back away.
Whats wrong? She stopped in the doorway.
It might have been his imagination, the drugs, but Eliot could have sworn that
her eyes were much darker than normal. He trotted off a dozen yards or so and
stood looking at her.
It was a scream of rage and frustration, and he could scarcely believe the
speed with which she darted toward him. He ran full tilt at first, leaping
sideways to avoid collisions, veering past alarmed dark-skinned faces; but
after a couple of blocks he found a more efficient rhythm and began to
anticipate obstacles, to glide in and out of the crowd. Angry shouts were
raised behind him. He glanced back. Michaela was closing the distance,
beelining for him, knocking people sprawling with what seemed effortless blows.
He ran harder. The crowd grew thicker, and he kept near the walls of the
houses, where it was thinnest; but even there it was hard to maintain a good
pace. Torches were waved in his face; young mensinging, their arms
linkedposed barriers that slowed him further. He could no longer see
Michaela, but he could see the wake of her passage. Fists shaking, heads
jerking. The entire scene was starting to lose cohesiveness to Eliot. There
were screams of torchlight, bright shards of deranged shouts, jostling waves of
incense and ordure. He felt like the only solid chunk in a glittering soup that
was being poured through a stone trough.
At the edge of Durbar Square he had a brief glimpse of a shadow standing by the
massive gilt doors of Degutale Temple. It was larger and a more anthracitic
black than Mr. Chatterjis Khaa: one of the old ones, the powerful ones.
The sight buoyed his confidence and restored his equilibrium. He had not
misread the plan. But he knew that this was the most dangerous part. He had
lost track of Michaela, and the crowd was sweeping him along; if she caught up
to him now, he would not be able to run. Fighting for elbow room, struggling to
keep his feet, he was borne into the temple complex. The pagoda roofs sloped up
into darkness like strangely carved mountains, their peaks hidden by a moonless
night; the cobbled paths were narrow, barely ten feet across, and the crowd was
being squeezed along them, a lava flow of humanity. Torches bobbed everywhere,
sending wild licks of shadow and orange light up the walls, revealing scowling
faces on the eaves. Atop its pedestal, the gilt statue of Hanumanthe
monkey godlooked to be swaying. Clashing cymbals and arrhythmic drumming
scattered Eliots heartbeat; the sinewy wail of oboes seemed to be
graphing the fluctuations of his nerves.
As he swept past Hanuman Dhoka Temple, he caught sight of the brass mask of
White Bhairab shining over the heads of the crowd like the face of an evil
clown. It was less than a hundred feet away, set in a huge niche in a temple
wall and illuminated by light bulbs that hung down among strings of prayer
flags. The crowd surged faster, knocking him this way and that; but he managed
to spot two more Khaa in the doorway of Hanuman Dhoka. Both melted downward,
vanishing, and Eliots hopes soared. They must have located Michaela, they
must be attacking! By the time he had been carried to within a few yards of the
mask, he was sure that he was safe. They must have finished her exorcism by
now. The only problem left was to find her. That, he realized, had been the
weak link in the plan. Hed been an idiot not to have foreseen it. Who
knows what might happen if she were to fall in the midst of the crowd. Suddenly
he was beneath the pipe that stuck out of the gods mouth; the stream of
rice beer arching from it looked translucent under the lights, and as it
splashed his face (no fish), its coldness acted to wash away his veneer of
chemical strength. He was dizzy, his groin throbbed. The great face, with its
fierce fangs and goofy, startled eyes, appeared to be swelling and rocking back
and forth. He took a deep breath. The thing to do would be to find a place next
to a wall where he could wedge himself against the flow of the crowd, wait
until it had thinned, and then search for her. He was about to do that very
thing when two powerful hands gripped his elbows from behind.
Unable to turn, he craned his neck and peered over his shoulder. Michaela
smiled at him: a gloating gotcha! smile. Her eyes were dead black
ovals. She shaped his name with her mouth, her voice inaudible above the music
and shouting, and she began to push him ahead of her, using him as a battering
ram to forge a path through the crowd. To anyone watching, it might have
appeared that he was running interference for her, but his feet were dangling
just off the ground. Angry Newars yelled at him as he knocked them aside. He
yelled, too. No one noticed. Within seconds they had got clear into a side
street, threading between groups of drunkards. People laughed at Eliots
cries for help, and one guy imitated the awkward loose-limbed way he was
Michaela turned into a doorway, carrying him down a dirt-floored corridor whose
walls were carved into ornate screens; the dusky orange lamplight shining
through the screens cast a lacework of shadow on the dirt. The corridor widened
to a small courtyard, the age-darkened wood of its walls and doors inlaid with
intricate mosaics of ivory. Michaela stopped and slammed him against a wall. He
was stunned, but he recognized the place to be one of the old Buddhist temples
that surrounded the square. Except for a life-sized statue of a golden cow, the
courtyard was empty.
Eliot. The way she said it, it was more of a curse than a name.
He opened his mouth to scream, but she drew him into an embrace; her grip on
his right elbow tightened, and her other hand squeezed the back of his neck,
pinching off the scream.
Dont be afraid, she said. I only want to kiss
Her breasts crushed into his chest, her pelvis ground against him in a mockery
of passion, and inch by inch she forced his face down to hers. Her lips parted,
andoh, Christ Jesus!Eliot writhed in her grasp, enlivened by
a new horror. The inside of her mouth was as black as her eyes. She wanted him
to kiss that blackness, to taste the evil she had kissed beneath the Eiger. He
kicked and clawed with his free hand, but she was irresistible, her hands like
iron. His elbow cracked, and brilliant pain shot through his arm. Something
else was cracking in his neck. Yet none of that compared to what he felt as her
tonguea burning black pokerpushed between his lips. His chest was
bursting with the need to scream, and everything was going dark. Thinking this
was death, he experienced a peevish resentment that death was notas
hed been led to believean end to pain, that it merely added a
tickling sensation to all his other pain. Then the searing heat in his mouth
diminished, and he thought that death must just have been a bit slower than
Several seconds passed before he realized that he was lying on the ground,
several more before he noticed Michaela lying beside him, andbecause
darkness was tattering the edges of his visionit was considerably longer
before he distinguished the six undulating darknesses that had ringed Aim�e
Cousineau. They towered over her; their blackness gleamed like thick fur, and
the air around them was awash with vibration. In her fluted white nightgown,
her cameo face composed in an expression of calm, Aim�e looked the antithesis
of the vaguely male giants that were menacing her, delicate and finely worked
in contrast to their crudity. Her eyes appeared to mirror their negative color.
After a moment, a little wind kicked up, swirling about her. The undulations of
the Khaa increased, becoming rhythmic, the movements of boneless dancers, and
the wind subsided. Puzzled, she darted between two of them and took a defensive
stance next to the golden cow; she lowered her head and stared up through her
brows at the Khaa. They melted downward, rolled forward, sprang erect, and
hemmed her in against the statue. But the stare was doing its damage. Pieces of
ivory and wood were splintering, flying off the walls toward the Khaa, and one
of them was fading, a mist of black particles accumulating around its body;
then, with a shrill noise that reminded Eliot of a jet passing overhead, it
Five Khaa remained in the courtyard. Aim�e smiled and turned her stare on
another. Before the stare could take effect, however, the Khaa moved close,
blocking Eliots view of her; and when they pulled back, it was Aim�e who
showed signs of damage. Rills of blackness were leading from her eyes, webbing
her cheeks, making it look as if her face were cracking. Her nightgown caught
fire, her hair began to leap. Flames danced on her fingertips, spread to her
arms, her breast, and she assumed the form of the burning woman.
As soon as the transformation was complete, she tried to shrink, to dwindle to
her vanishing point; but, acting in unison, the Khaa extended their hands and
touched her. There was that shriek of tortured metal, lapsing to a high-pitched
hum, and to Eliots amazement, the Khaa were sucked inside her. It was a
rapid process. The Khaa faded to a haze, to nothing, and veins of black marbled
the burning womans fire; the blackness coalesced, forming into five tiny
stick figures, a hieroglyphic design patterning her gown. With a fuming sound
she expanded again, regaining her normal dimensions, and the Khaa flowed back
out, surrounding her. For an instant she stood motionless, dwarfed: a
schoolgirl helpless amidst a circle of bullies. Then she clawed at the nearest
of them. Though she had no features with which to express emotion, it seemed to
Eliot there was desperation in her gesture, in the agitated leaping of her
fiery hair. Unperturbed, the Khaa stretched out their enormous mitten hands,
hands that spread like oil and enveloped her.
The destruction of the burning woman, of Aim�e Cousineau, lasted only a matter
of seconds; but to Eliot it occurred within a bubble of slow time, a time
during which he achieved a speculative distance. He wondered ifas the
Khaa stole portions of her fire and secreted it within their bodiesthey
were removing disparate elements of her soul, if she consisted of
psychologically distinct fragments: the girl who had wandered into the cave,
the girl who had returned from it, the betrayed lover. Did she embody
gradations of innocence and sinfulness, or was she a contaminated essence, an
unfractionated evil? While still involved in this speculation, half a reaction
to pain, half to the metallic shriek of her losing battle, he lost
consciousness, and when he reopened his eyes, the courtyard was deserted. He
could hear music and shouting from Durbar Square. The golden cow stared
contentedly into nowhere.
He had the idea that if he moved, he would further break all the broken things
inside him; but he inched his left hand across the dirt and rested it on
Michaelas breast. It was rising and falling with a steady rhythm. That
made him happy, and he kept his hand there, exulting in the hits of her life
against his palm. Something shadowy above him. He strained to see it. One of
the Khaa . . . No! It was Mr. Chatterjis Khaa. Opaquely
black, scrap of fire glimmering in its hand. Compared to its big brothers, it
had the look of a skinny, sorry mutt. Eliot felt camaraderie toward it.
Hey, Bongo, he said weakly. We won.
A tickling at the top of his head, a whining note, and he had an impression not
of gratitudeas he might have expectedbut of intense curiosity. The
tickling stopped, and Eliot suddenly felt clear in his mind. Strange. He was
passing out once again, his consciousness whirling, darkening, and yet he was
calm and unafraid. A roar came from the direction of the square.
Somebodythe luckiest somebody in the Katmandu Valleyhad caught the
fish. But as Eliots eyelids fluttered shut, as he had a last glimpse of
the Khaa looming above them and felt the warm measure of Michaelas
heartbeat, he thought maybe that the crowd was cheering the wrong man.
* * *
Three weeks after the night of White Bhairab, Ranjeesh Chatterji divested
himself of all worldly possessions (including the gift of a years free
rent at his house to Eliot) and took up residence at Swayambhunath
whereaccording to Sam Chipley, who visited Eliot in the hospitalhe
was attempting to visualize the Avalokitesvara Buddha. It was then that Eliot
understood the nature of his newfound clarity. Just as it had done long ago
with the womans goiters, the Khaa had tried his habituation to meditation
on for size, had not cared for it, and sloughed it off in a handy repository:
It was such a delicious irony that Eliot had to restrain himself from telling
Michaela when she visited that same afternoon; she had no memory of the Khaa,
and news of it tended to unsettle her. But otherwise she had been healing right
along with Eliot. All her listlessness had eroded over the weeks, her capacity
for love was returning and was focused solely on Eliot. I guess I needed
someone to show me that I was worth an effort, she told him.
Ill never stop trying to repay you. She kissed him. I
can hardly wait till you come home. She brought him books and candy and
flowers; she sat with him each day until the nurses shooed her away. Yet being
the center of her devotion disturbed him. He was still uncertain whether or not
he loved her. Clarity, it seemed, made a man dangerously versatile, his
conscience flexible, and instituted a cautious approach to commitment. At least
this was the substance of Eliots clarity. He didnt want to rush
When at last he did come home, he and Michaela made love beneath the starlight
glory of Mr. Chatterjis skylight. Because of Eliots neck brace and
cast, they had to manage the act with extreme care, but despite that, despite
the ambivalence of his feelings, this time it was love they made.
Afterward, lying with his good arm around her, he edged nearer to commitment.
Whether or not he loved her, there was no way this part of things could be
improved by any increment of emotion. Maybe hed give it a try with her.
If it didnt work out, well, he was not going to be responsible for her
mental health. She would have to learn to live without him.
Happy? he asked, caressing her shoulder.
She nodded and cuddled closer and whispered something that was partially drowned
out by the crinkling of the pillow. He was sure he had misheard her, but the
mere thought that he hadnt was enough to lodge a nugget of chill between
his shoulder blades.
What did you say? he asked.
She turned to him and propped herself on an elbow, silhouetted by the
starlight, her features obscured. But when she spoke, he realized that Mr.
Chatterjis Khaa had been true to its erratic traditions of barter on the
night of White Bhairab; and he knew that if she were to tip back her head ever
so slightly and let the light shine into her eyes, he would be able to resolve
all his speculations about the composition of Aim�e Cousineaus soul.
Im wed to Happiness, she said.
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