His desk lay against the wall, the window open to let in the breeze. There was none to cool him today, though. The leaves of the trees nearby seemed to be set in stone. No rustle would be heard this night. His house was perched near the top of the hill, and at night, the view that one might behold by the light of the moon was breathtaking. Nawaf, however had eyes only for his screen. In this mood he rarely ever noticed the world around him.
A tap on his shoulder jolted him out of his trance. It was only when he stopped typing and unplugged his headphones that he realized how his hands were hurting and how long he had been working without a break. All the aches and sores came alive, his brain overwhelmed by the sensations, did not at first comprehend the source of the disturbance.
“Haven’t you been working late enough? It is 2 AM. Sleep now, the work can wait till tomorrow. This is no time for us to be awake.”
His mind focused on his mother’s face. She was a hardened woman, having raised and supported him completely on her own with no outside help. She took a fierce pride in her son’s professional excellence, but she was, in the end, a mother.
“Only an hour’s work left, mother. I have to submit this article before 7 AM, it’s best to get it over with now.”
“You haven’t had anything to eat either, working for so long continuously is not healthy. You are only 24 and already your bones creak and groan like an old lady’s.”
Nawaf smiled, gave his mother a hug and walked into the kitchen with her. One glass of tang and a perfectly cooked omelet later, he actually felt much better than he would dare to admit to her. She was always right, but he didn’t need to let her know that.
“I ate now, mother. May I go work?”
“Night time is the time of the devil, us humans are supposed to be asleep.”
“Well, you did raise a devil of a son, you must make some allowances.”
His mother heaved a sigh, a mother’s sigh. One that indicates approval, disapproval, resignation and exasperation all rolled into one. She kissed his forehead and retired into her room. No matter how late she stayed up, she was always awake at 6 AM every morning, cooking for him and cleaning the house right after her morning prayers. Nawaf often wondered when she got any rest. His body was on the verge of a breakdown, and he decided to finish his article quickly so he could sleep till late in the morning and recuperate.
“All right, last session, let’s get this over with.”
Continuously working nights alone had caused Nawaf to develop peculiar habits. Constant conversations with himself out loud were one of them. He had found it a tough habit to get rid of and now spoke to himself even when in company. People always referred to him as half schizo, well on his way. His boss didn’t care, as long as the articles kept rolling in.
He resumed his position at the desk, took a moment to gather his thoughts, and soon the fingers took flight once more. Words poured out of him, his lips moving in silent pronunciation. Soon his article was finished. He reread the whole thing, ruthlessly slashing out any part that did not meet his exceptionally high standards, adding a clarifying note here and there. Within an hour, he was quite satisfied with his creation and proceeded to mail it to his boss.
“Game, set, match, Nawaf,” he said, with no little amount of pride.
He stretched his stiff back, gave an almighty yawn, glanced out of the window and took in the view. The hillside stretched down towards the river, dotted with trees and other houses. Pathways crisscrossed in a labyrinth of intersections, creating a wondrously symmetrical design in the dark for Nawaf’s weary eyes. At this hour, the whole town was asleep. Nawaf had hardly ever seen a light on past 11 PM.
Mist had just begun to swirl in and obscure his view, lazily wafting into his room through the open window. Nawaf shivered. The night had turned cold all of a sudden and his damp forehead amplified its effect. He leaned out to shut the window to the cold, when he heard the tinkle of jewelry. He paused, ears cocked, wondering if he had imagined it. He hadn’t, he heard it again.
He squinted into the night to try and identify the source of the noise. The mist made it tougher to see anything. But in the gloom he saw a lantern flickering some way down the mountain. From the light of the lantern he spotted a shape, a crooked shape, bent almost double as one is in extreme old age. The lateness of the hour made Nawaf curious as to what this villager was up to. His sleep suddenly forgotten, he stared intently and tried to make sense of the occurrence.
The shape stepped into the light of the lantern and sat down on a chair. Nawaf saw now that it was a woman. But she did not seem to be any ordinary woman. She was bedecked with jewelry of unimaginable quantities. Nawaf was not sure if her crooked gait was due to her age or the sheer weight of the gold she wore. Ornaments of the most extravagant nature were on display, reflecting the lantern light and tinkling against each other at the slightest movement.
“What in the world is she doing wearing jewelry at this time of the night?” wondered Nawaf.
He encountered a strange feeling in his stomach. The kind that tells you that you’re seeing something not meant to be seen. A fear gripped Nawaf, and despite the growing cold, a sweat began to form on his forehead once again. He wanted to sleep, but he could not take his eyes off the woman. The woman, on her part, seemed oblivious and sat motionless in the chair, almost as if in a trance. For how long Nawaf would have stayed there staring, he did not know, but he was shaken out of his reverie by the sound of the call for morning prayers from the nearby mosque.
Nawaf remembered suddenly that his mom would be up soon and dreaded the lecture he would get if she saw that he hadn’t slept. He glanced at her room nervously, then looked back out the window. The lady was gone.
He crawled into bed, intrigued, but thoroughly perplexed. He had never seen that woman around the village before and was very interested to know who she was. He made a mental note to ask his mother.
Nawaf awoke late in the afternoon, his lunch lay cold upon the table, his mom was outside tending the vegetable patch. He ate quickly, hardly tasting what he ate, washed his face and rushed outside to help his mother.
“Good morning, mother.”
“You live in India, Nawaf, in these parts we call these evenings.”
“I prefer not to dwell on unimportant details. However what I am interested in, is whose house that is.” He pointed out the house he had watched the night before to his mother. She gave it a cursory glance and said, “That’s Waseem Uncle’s house. Why are you interested in it?”
“Who lives there these days?”
“No one. Waseem Uncle used to live there alone. But since his death that house has been deserted. The land is not particularly precious, so the villagers keep their hands off it. You were young, you did not know him so well.”
“How did he die?”
“It was very strange. He was about to get married after a very long wait. He was, after all, 45. And just two nights before his wedding, he took a walk at night in the mountains, he slipped and fell into the Chenab. And you know what they say, once you fall into the Chenab, your next stop is Pakistan.”
Nawaf thought about it all day. So he had died just days before his wedding, and now there was a woman who waited outside his house every night wearing tons of jewelry. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out, Nawaf had seen enough movies. This must be the woman to whom Waseem Uncle was to be married. And in her loyalty to him, she would wait outside his house, in full wedding apparel and look for his arrival. She must be unable to accept his death. Nawaf’s heart went out to the lady, to bear such heartbreak at such an advanced age was terrible.
That night Nawaf stayed up late again. But not for the sake of any article or other work, but out of pure curiosity. He was enthralled by the idea of that woman waiting out there and he wanted to know more. He waited for a long time with no sign of her, but around three o’ clock, he saw the lantern flicker on and there she was, dressed in exactly the same way as the night before. Nawaf did not hesitate, he took his overcoat, stepping lightly around the house to make no noise, opened the backdoor and slipped outside. Once outside, he hurriedly walked towards the flickering lantern, shielding himself from the biting wind. On approaching the house, he wondered how he was to go about the conversation, apprehensive of her reaction to his intrusion. Presently, he reached the gate to the house. The lady sat there motionless, taking no notice of him,
“Assalaam – u – alaikum,” he began, tentatively. He received no reply.
“I’m sorry to intrude this way, but I noticed you have been sitting here in the dead of the night waiting for something or someone. May I know who it is? Is there any way I can be of help?”
The lady did not say anything, but the faint trace of a smile began to show on her features. She looked much younger than Nawaf originally imagined her to be. And he could see she would have been beautiful in her day, but her face now seemed worn and beaten with the cares of life.
“I have been waiting for a long time.”
Her reply did not come loaded with emotion, she did not say it melodramatically. It was merely a statement. Nawaf looked at her, she was wearing a heavy gown under all the jewelry, but she wore no coat or sweater.
“Do you want me to get you a blanket or a jacket or something,” he asked, struggling to keep the conversation going, “you must be really cold.”
The woman’s smile widened. “Yes, I am cold. Weather does not affect me now.”
“This woman is seriously creepy,” thought Nawaf to himself. He regretted having come down here to talk to her and longed for the warmth of his bed. However he still hadn’t received any answers. The journalist in him stood strong.
“Are you waiting for Waseem Uncle?”
The smile vanished, the lady suddenly looked terrifying, terrible. Her face seemed to age a thousand years in an instant. She glared at Nawaf, stood up, switched off the lantern and walked away. She went not into the house, but behind it and disappeared from sight.
Nawaf hurried back home and fell asleep. The night’s events were too much for his mind to figure out, he would leave it till the morning.
“I met her yesterday.” Nawaf said to his mother, munching on some butter toast.
“Thank God you are meeting girls. You are 24 now, it is time for you to get married.”
Nawaf chuckled to himself. Before his mother could lecture him on the perks of early marriage again, he corrected her assumption.
“No, no, mother, not a prospective bride. I met Waseem Uncle’s fiancée. She was outside his house yesterday.”
Nawaf’s mother stopped cooking for a second and looked at Nawaf to check if this was another one of his jokes. She was his mother and knew him inside out, but somehow she could never tell when he was kidding. This time though, he seemed serious enough.
“What do you mean you met her? How do you even know it was her?”
The point hadn’t occurred to Nawaf before and he considered it now.
“She was wearing wedding clothes and she reacted violently when I mentioned Waseem Uncle to her. I did not confirm her identity, but I think it is a safe bet, don’t you?”
His mother stared at him with increasing concern, her face becoming pale, she began muttering a prayer under her breath.
“Mother? What’s wrong”
“Nawaf, promise me you will never go there again. Swear on my life.”
“But mama, what happened?”
“Waseem Uncle’s fiancée is now happily married with two kids in Mumbai. I have her photo with me, wait.”
She showed Nawaf a picture of a beautiful woman with a radiant face and a charismatic smile. This was not the woman Nawaf had seen last night. This perplexed him even more.
“Then who was that last night? Why would she be waiting outside his house in a wedding dress?”
“Nawaf, please leave it alone. It could have been a djinn or a spirit, I’m very worried. Uncle Waseem’s death also occurred under mysterious circumstances. Just promise me you’ll leave it alone.” She was tearing up now.
“Okay, okay. Calm down, mother, I won’t ever go there again. I promise.”
His mother looked at him for a long moment, then kissed his forehead and continued with her day’s work. Nawaf banished the memory of the lady to the back of his mind and immersed himself in another article.
That night, around three, Nawaf heard the tinkle of jewelry again.
“I promised mother, I cannot break my promise. Just ignore it.”
He stood up and walked away from the desk and lay down on his bed, nervously muttering a prayer. He was not a religious man, but under the circumstances, he figured it was better to be safe than sorry.
Just as the clock struck three, Nawaf heard a whisper, as if emanating from right beside him. “It is time.”
He jumped and looked around, there was no one. But he knew he had heard the lady whisper to him.
He looked out the window and saw the lantern flicker in the distance.
The light held a strange attraction to him. He forgot all about the promise he made his mother.
He forgot all he had heard that afternoon. He did not even remember why he was walking out of the house. All he knew was he wanted to get closer to that light. He quietly unlocked the door and stepped out.
He was never seen by human eyes again.
Many years have passed since that tragic incident occurred. Mrs. Ahmed lives alone in the same cottage.
Nawaf’s room has been preserved just as he had left it on that night. Every night, she offers her prayers to God, though now she has precious little to pray for. Every night she glances at Nawaf’s bedroom with tear filled eyes. Every night she asks the darkness why Nawaf broke his promise.