Right! Anand thought. Thats what all the evil beings in his storybooks said, the monsters and witches, the dakinis who drank blood.
"I dont believe you! I dont even know who you are!" he shouted. "Go away now, before I yell for the neighbors."
"Your neighbors wont come. They wont even hear you over the wind. And even if they did, theyd be too scared, because of the killing"
"How did you know about the . . . killing?" Anand asked, astonished, stumbling over the word. No one in the neighborhood spoke of it, not out loud like this, anyway. Like Anand, they all called it "the accident," as though renaming it could make it into something less dangerous.
The voice didnt answer his question. "In any case, you do know who I am," it said instead with a little laugh. "Im the old man to whom you gave your tea."
Perhaps it was the laugh, or the memory of the old mans hand, light as a birds foot in his hand, but Anand felt less scared. He wasnt completely convinced, though.
"Why did you follow me home?" he asked.
"Dont you know? You called for mefor usand we came."
"I never called anyone," Anand said. Then he added, suspiciously, "What do you want from me?"
"Did you not call for help a little while ago?" the old man said.
"But that was in my head"
"Exactly," said the man, a smile in his voice. "But youre right. I do want something. And in return I have something to offer you. But I cant discuss these things with a closed door between us. Please?"
Wondering if he was making a terrible mistake, Anand motioned to Meera to get behind him. What if its a trick?
a voice inside him whispered. Ignoring it, he raised a trembling hand and unbolted the door. It was only when the door had creaked open on its hinges that he remembered that the man had said "we came."
But thank heavens, the old man was alone. Perhaps I misheard him, Anand thought. Something about him was different, though. Was it Anands imagination, or did he seem straighter and taller? His white hair and beard glowed eerily in the dim light from the lamp as he stepped into the room, and there was a brightness in his eyes. The cloth bag was slung over his shoulder.
"Thank you," he said with a slight bow. "The wind was becoming rather unpleasant." As Anand watched, he walked to each corner of the room and made the same strange motion with his hand that Anand had seen him make earlier. Then he sat down on the mat the boy had spread out for him.
"Its very unusual for it to be so windy here," Anand said, mostly because he didnt know what else to say. He wondered if it had been the old man whom he had felt following him earlier. Somehow he didnt think so. The old man was strange, but Anand didnt feel scared when he looked at him. If anything, he felt happy. That was odd. Why should he feel happy looking at this ragged stranger whom hed never met before today?
"Im afraid Im partly responsible for that the old man was saying with a rueful grin.
What do you mean? Did you . . . make . . . the wind happen?" As soon as he said it, Anand felt stupid. People didnt make winds happen.
But the old man didnt seem to think it was a stupid question. "I didnt," he replied. "Someone who wanted to stop me did. But before I explain things, is it possible to get a bite to eat? Im starving. Only had a glass of tea all day, you know, and a few pooris!"
Anand jumped to his feet, embarrassed. "Of course! Ill start the rice and lentil stew right away. Thats all we have, Im afraid." He hunted around in the corner for the pot. Thankfully Meera had remembered to wash it today. He glanced at Meera, who was unusually quiet. She had crept close to the old man as he talked and was watching him intently. This surprised him. Ever since the killing, shed been terrified of strangers, and on the few occasions when they had neighbors visiting them, she had curled up on her pallet in the far corner of the room, with the bedclothes drawn over her head.
From The Conch Bearer by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Copyright © 2003 by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher, Millbrook Press.
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