Frances thought her bladder would burst; walking the extra two hundred yards to the outdoor lavatory was out of the question. The zinnia patch adjacent to the patio would have to suffice. It was nearly 9 pm, no-one would see.
She grabbed the battered torch that was left near the back door and stepped out onto the patio. A dulcet evening breeze, heavy with the sweet perfume of jasmine, wove its way through the recently watered garden. Frances moved the flashlight up and down to orientate herself in the dark. Almost immediately, various insects swarmed the rim of the torch, seduced by the faint light. Once she’d located the zinnias, Frances moved towards them with purpose. Shaking the flashlight free of the insects, she wedged it into the nook of her right armpit. Hitching up her powder-blue housecoat she yanked down her underpants, then crouched low among the flowers.
A gurgling echoed out from the kitchen. Frances pictured their servant, Rani, pouring water into the large white aluminium pan from the takaran pail. The woman did this with a dramatic flourish—the bucket held high above the basin until all its contents flowed out. Whenever the kitchen pail was empty, Rani waddled down to the well at the bottom of the garden to draw up more water. Then she retreated to the kitchen with the fresh water swishing around in the pail. Invariably a quarter of it spilled out onto the garden path as the bucket swayed back and forth along with the slow, undulating motion of Rani’s duckwalk. Even though fetching well water was more work for Rani, the woman stubbornly refused to use the kitchen tap. She had told Frances that mains water was tainted, somehow. Frances didn’t question this belief.
‘They must have finished dinner if the basin is being filled to wash dishes,’ Frances muttered to herself. That meant it would be time to read a story to the children. But she didn’t want to go inside, not yet.
Still squatting, she reluctantly negotiated with herself: ‘I’ll go inside once I’ve counted 185 stars.’ Gazing upwards, shuffling slightly so she could peer between the tree branches, she started tallying. Her habit was to commence with the three stars in Orion’s Belt. Then, she would sweep across the night sky from left to right. Frances had reached 27 when a sudden rustling in the thick hibiscus hedge behind the zinnias distracted her. Continuing to crouch, with her underwear suspended around her ankles, she manoeuvred herself, turning towards the sound.
The large black dog she’d seen frequenting the garden over the past few days loomed out. The light from the torch, muted by her armpit, elongated the animal’s silhouette. Snarling, the creature revealed a row of jagged ivory teeth. Its steady panting was punctuated, now and then, with a guttural growl. Ropes of opaque saliva dripped out of its gaping mouth and over its blood-red tongue. Mesmerised by the drool, Frances remained anchored to the garden bed. The dog seated itself almost beside her.
Up until now, Frances had been inside whenever she’d glimpsed the dog in the zinnia patch, through a half-open door or window. Today was the first time she had been this close to the creature.
‘Fran, are you out there? Are you okay?’ Bernard’s voice called out from behind the patio door. The dog didn’t flinch. Frances swiftly turned off the torchlight. Adjusting her thick black-rimmed spectacles, which had fallen halfway down her nose, she allowed her eyes to habituate to the darkness. Slices of moonlight filtered into the garden through the canopy formed by the araliya and tamarind trees, illuminating the zinnia patch with miniature lakes of light.
The shock of seeing the creature, of it being within her reach, registered with her body. Goosebumps erupted in rapid succession along her arms and up the back of her neck. The tight grip on her cotton housecoat loosened as her hand became clammy.
‘Frances!’ Bernard boomed.
A hinge squeaked, and the hollow thud of plywood reverberated as the patio fly-screen door swung back. Frances remained silent. Even in the darkness, the creature’s distinctive eyes—pale-yellow irises with dilated pupils—glowed and bored into her.
Frances held her left index finger up to her lips as she gestured to the creature to remain quiet. The dog’s rhythmic panting and low intermittent grunts muzzled her ears. She noticed that its drooling was synchronised with its growls. Extending her index finger, she gently poked the animal near its ribs. Expecting to feel coarse fur stretched taut over sinewy muscle, the void under her fingertip confused Frances. Gingerly, she ventured out her entire left hand, palm cupped, ready to pat the creature. Again, she felt nothing; her hand passed seamlessly through the black form. Perplexed, Frances held her palm up to her nose and breathed in slowly, several times. There was no hint of a musky dog smell. Only the faint astringency of the Bombay onions she’d chopped for her omelette remained on her hand. Beads of sweat dotted her upper lip, and the strain of squatting burnt her thighs. But she was too transfixed by the animal to move.
Mosquitos, aware of an easy target, began to land on her ankles, face and forearms. Their sonic ululations pierced her ears as they jabbed, repeatedly. Swatting with her hands was not an option: the left needed to be kept unfettered just in case she needed to interact with the dog, her right hand held her bunched-up clothing. So, with her underpants dangling, Frances started rocking gently back and forth on her haunches, shaking her head from side to side, hoping that the motion would deter them.
‘Frances, are you out there searching for that bloody black dog, again?’ she heard her husband yell out, louder. ‘You know, you are seeing things, just like all the other times. There is no black dog! We would have all seen it by now if it existed.’ Continuing to squat and sway, Frances dipped her head, listening to Bernard without saying a word.
‘Fran, please think of the children. They’re petrified with all this nonsense of a black dog. Shanthi is hiding in her room. She ran there the moment she saw you float outside in your house coat, like an itinerant cloud. The poor child told me that the black dog is going to take you away. I can’t even find Maithri; he must be cowering somewhere as well. Please don’t talk about that wretch of a dog when you come back inside.’ Bernard seemed to be pleading this time.
Had she spoken to the children about the black dog? Why would she have done that? She couldn’t remember either way. Lately, her memory had been hazy.
‘Frances? Can you hear me? What the hell is wrong with you? Why won’t you answer?’ he hollered. His anger was palpable now through the night air. It reached her like a spiked punch to the face, catching her off guard. Frances winced, fat tears welling in her eyes.
The evening call of the cicadas hummed in the garden. Shifting her attention away from Bernard’s reprimand, Frances focused on the insects instead. She imagined dozens of little cicadas all around her, rubbing their wings, each a miniature violin. She swayed her hips to their harmony.
‘You recall what the Kattadiya said to us, don’t you?’ Bernard asked. ‘An infection has set in your brain, which is causing your mind to gallivant all over the place.’ He continued in a deliberate voice, ‘That black dog, that yakka, is inside your head. It’s not real. I swear, if the Kattadiya’s ruddy medicine doesn’t work soon, I’m going to admit you to the Angoda Sanatorium tomorrow morning. I don’t care what Violet, or even your whole bloody jing-bang family, says about the state of that place. I honestly don’t know what to do with you any more.’
There it was, thought Frances, the fetid truth: her husband had tired of her. Worse still was his gangrenous explanation—she had a minor infection that could be cured with the jungle juices prescribed by a fool.
‘Kattadiya!’ She spat out the word, conjuring up the charlatan’s vile image. How Frances despised that skinny katussa, with his oily slicked-back hair, shaggy brows and teeth stained crimson from chewing betelnut. Despite a rotund belly that protruded over his urine-stained sarong, the man needed a thick leather belt to hold up the dirty garment.
‘Must be because of his small mango-shaped bottom,’ she sniggered to the black dog.
Frances saw that the creature observed her intently, as if it could picture her thoughts. She returned the yellow gaze, ‘You know, the fellow’s arms stuck out like blackened matchsticks from his filthy banyan, and his ugly feet were bare. The man didn’t even have slippers on. Disgusting really, considering he must smear himself around in all manner of places.’
She rested her chin on her breastbone, allowing her neck to relax. It had been her sister Violet’s idea to consult the local Kattadiya. Violet, her elder sister, believed in all that hocus-pocus, and she’d convinced Bernard to summon the idiot to avoid a family calamity.
‘What harm could there possibly be?’ she’d overheard Violet whisper to Bernard. ‘It’s better than admitting her to Angoda. That place is for actual pissas. My sister is not that crazy.’
The Kattadiya had arrived early in the morning, bumping along in a bullock cart, which he left near the zinnias. Frances watched from behind the patio fly-screen door as the bull munched on an assortment of her precious flowers and defecated at the same time. She hadn’t been called outside to join the trio; the man spoke in hushed tones to Violet and Bernard. Occasionally, brows furrowed, all three of them glanced up at her.
After slurping a condensed-milk tea and crunching a gingernut biscuit, he’d cocooned her away in the master bedroom. Once closeted off, separated from her family, the man decided to take liberties. The Kattadiya pulled down Frances’s sari-pallu, shoving his calloused hands under her hatte and all over her bare breasts, pinching her nipples hard between his cold fingers. Her thoughts pirouetted. Yet her body remained still and stiff with worry.
‘Actually, I know your problem so well,’ he’d hissed as his lips brushed against her right ear and the tip of his tongue flickered out, just like a katussa. The Kattadiya’s breath, rancid from the combination of betel nut and milk tea, fouled the air.
Afterwards, he unlocked the bedroom door, announcing to the waiting family that a brain infection was the cause of Frances’s apparition. His words loitered, polluting the living room. ‘The nona’s mind is wandering all over the place. But don’t worry, I can fix it. I will need a few private visitations with Madam Frances.’ Puffing up his puny, concave chest, he assured her gullible family that his uniquely prepared tonic and the accompanying mantram, which Frances had to recite, would cure her. Frances had watched the interchange in mute fascination.
‘You’re quite confident, then?’ Bernard asked.
‘Of course, sir. One hundred per cent. Guaranteed,’ the Kattadiya declared, swaying his head rhythmically from side to side. With a look of rabid kindness, he’d pulled out a dark-green glass bottle and a grubby note from his cadjan basket. The fool gave the bottle a theatrical shake in the air, before solemnly handing it to Bernard.
‘Make sure Madam drinks this tonic five times a day and chants the mantram, written down here, at least ten times per day. I will come back in two days’ time to check on everything,’ he had said, watching Frances from beneath his hooded eyes.
By the time Frances looked up, the creature had vanished without a sound. It had left in its wake a silvery snail trail, long and luminous in the velvet night. ‘Ah! Thank God! The saliva!’ she murmured triumphantly, reaching over to scoop some of the shimmery residue with her left index finger. Frances felt relieved when she touched a wet, slimy globule.
Holding the finger out in front, she pulled up her underpants with her right hand. Impatient to return to the house, she rushed towards the patio. Like those of the creature, her eyes had adapted to the blanket of darkness; Frances forgot about the flashlight hidden in her armpit. In her haste, she dropped it, shattering the glass lens. Ignoring it, she stepped around the shards, anxious to inform Bernard that the Kattadiya’s potion was working. Maybe the fellow wasn’t a useless ras thiyadu karaya after all. Frances was baffled though, as she hadn’t swallowed the fructivorous jungle-green liquid; she’d been pouring it onto the zinnias at various intervals. Perhaps even handling the concoction was sufficient for it to work. She intended to show Bernard the dog’s saliva on her finger: ample proof that the creature was not an apparition.
Frances felt radiant like the stars she’d been counting. The infection was getting better; soon it would be gone altogether. One last time she turned hopefully towards the zinnias and the hibiscus hedge where she’d seen the black dog. The creature hadn’t returned. The broken flashlight was now blinking rapidly on and off in the blackness. Its light bounced around wildly in the trampled zinnia patch.
*Kattadiya: exorcist/witch doctor/demon expert
Mesh Tennakoon is a Melbourne writer who is working on a book of short stories that explore brief yet significant moments. ‘Kattadiya’ is from this collection. Mesh is studying creative writing at Deakin University.