The Doll

Around the beginning of the year, Nazly Ahmed tweeted a photo (or rather, two photos) which made me pause. I wondered what the story behind that image was but then forgot about it for the time being.

Yesterday, Nazly tweeted about a story that Milani B. had written based on his photograph. The story is in Sinhala so some of you might not be able to read it — and that’s a pity since it’s a good old Sri Lankan horror story, like the ones I used to read as a child. And a jolly good read 🙂

That story (and Nazly’s original image) inspired me to write a story of my own. In fact, I spent most of yesterday thinking about this and wondering what I would write. I came up with (and discarded) multiple ideas and in the end, I decided that I might try to write a series of stories around that photo.

I don’t know if I’ll actually get to write more than one story in the series but I did manage to write the first one today. So here it is …

When night falls over Colombo, it muffles everything and makes the dust, noise, heat, and the hustle-and-bustle of the day seem almost bearable. I like to swaddle myself in a cocoon of darkness, walking the streets lost in my thoughts, not feeling as if each passerby was staring into the very depths of my soul and trying to divine my innermost thoughts.

Dusk and dawn are my favourite times of the day — when the roar of the day is muted and it feels as if there is endless possibilities ahead of you, or the promise of a new day of possibilities just within reach. So there I was, enjoying the brisk sea breeze blowing in from the Indian ocean, walking down Marine Drive with not a thought in my head, letting the cares of the day leach away slowly as I walked to the food truck which was to provide my meal for the night.

I was lost in my thoughts, sure, but I was not oblivious to everything.

I slowly became aware of a movement that had been niggling away at the corner of my mind.

[“Or, maybe it is the corner of my eye and not mind? Could something even niggle away at your eye? Does it cause blindness?” sniggered the voice in my head. It often interrupted me like a tiny commentator, de-railing my train of thought.]

I disregarded the inner jeering for the moment and looked a little closer. It almost looked as if a tiny person was hanging on a lamp-post and beckoning to me. What?

I had originally taken the motion to be an orphaned flag left over from the independence celebrations or a poster stuck, as they often were, to the lamp- post commemorating some recently departed relative or a minister who earnestly wanted your vote to make Colombo a better place.

[“You mean make Colombo a better place for *them* by making their bank balance fatter, don’t you?” interrupted the tiny commentator again.]

I agreed with the sentiment, but this was no time for political debate, I had more urgent things to deal with. This was not a mere piece of debris waving in the gusts of wind like some flotsam bobbing around in the ocean currents. It really looked like a tiny person!

Gone out the window was my peaceful enjoyment of the dusky darkness as my mind began struggling with atavistic fears of the dark — it gibbered and screamed like the ape it descended from [“Or still is?” — there was the tiny voice again. I swatted it away.]

While every muscle, bone, and cell of my being screamed at me to run away to a place with more light — preferably, lots more light — and people, I forced myself to walk towards the figure. I grappled my screaming mind down to the floor and sternly told it that there had to be an explanation, there were no tiny people beckoning to you in the dark! There just couldn’t be.

[“What if it’s a ghost?”]

At this, my mind broke free of the half nelson I had it in and tried running off. No, not towards the darkness, it really didn’t like the dark. But it did try running off. I wrestled it to the ground again.

I’d been brought up on ghost stories. I have no idea why anybody thought that telling ghost stories to a five year old was a good idea. Maybe they thought that it was easier to control me — or, not have me run off into the night, perhaps — if I was afraid of the dark?

Who really knows? The upshot was that I’d been scared of the dark till I was a teenager. I’d thought there were countless menaces waiting to grab me as soon as the lights went out. It had taken me years to steel myself against the dark and to come to a tenuous agreement with it — it wouldn’t hurt me and I wouldn’t run screaming away from it.

As I grew older, I forgot about my agreement with the dark. I never even thought about the dark as a threat. I enjoyed its company. I liked walking the dark streets thinking all sorts of woolly thoughts. But now my old nemesis was back in it’s true form and it took all of my reasoning [“What reasoning? You’re a gibbering idiot right now!” sniggered my inner-voice.] … yes, my reasoning, to hold myself together.

Perhaps the jeering from the peanut gallery did help in a counter-intuitive way. My mind slowed its struggling as I recalled that the dark had never actually done me any harm. I was the one who’d been illogically, as Mr. Spock would say, afraid of it. This too was probably something silly, like the time I’d thought a bogeyman was coming to get me and it turned out to be a shirt hanging on the back of the bedroom door!

I inched myself closer to the tiny waving figure. It looked like a doll. My mind relaxed further and I could almost see the inner voice preparing a salvo of insults and jokes about what a scaredy-cat I was. It was just some doll that some idiot had tied to a lamp-post! What I had taken to be waving was probably just the doll moving to the beat of gusting wind …

I was pretty close to the doll now and was really laughing at myself now. I relaxed, ready to forget all about the incident and move on.

[“Yeah, you don’t want to remember your stupidity, or tell anybody else about it, right?” My inner voice must be recovering too since the flow of insults had started.]

Image credit: Nazly Ahmed

That was the moment when the doll’s eyes opened and it stared right at me with two tiny red-pin-prick eyes that cut through the darkness like a lightsaber from Star Wars. I let out a tiny little scream, like the last dying gust from a whoopee cushion. That’s all I could manage since my mind had scooped up all the rest of the screaming that was left in my being like a dry sponge dropped in a cup of water and was screaming and gibbering away like a banshee — it was in a frenzy of terror.

I would have run, but I couldn’t. My mind was too busy being terrified. All I could do was stand there, the last dribbles of the scream dripping off my lips, and gape at the doll with open mouth, eyes staring wide.
I could almost hear the whisper of a child’s laughter … My mind was scrabbling at the walls now.

Wait … laughter? The laughter was actually getting louder now. And it wasn’t one child, it sounded like several.

I took hold of my mind by its metaphorical neck and gave it a good shaking, saying “Listen, get a hold of yourself!” And it worked — at least a tiny bit. My mind gave up the screaming long enough for me to look away from the doll and to look around.

There was a short wall behind the lamp-post where the doll was hanging and I could see three small faces peering out from behind it — three tiny kids who seemed to be suffused with laughter. In fact, they were laughing so hard that they seemed to find it difficult to concentrate on anything else. One of them was holding what looked like a remote controller in his hands.

The children became aware of my gaze and instead of stopping, their laughter just became louder, more joyful. But the laughter seemed to be tinged by a hint of wariness, and they slowly got up and started backing away, still laughing.

I took a step towards them, confusion, anger, embarrassment, and a few other emotions roiling within me. The kid with the remote turned and ran off into the darkness, still shrieking with laughter. One of the others followed him without hesitation. The last kid turned to run, looked back at me for a moment and flashed a mischievous smile full of joy and deviltry before he too disappeared into the folds of darkness.

I stood there for a moment, emotions in turmoil, but the child’s smile was what won the day at the end. I laughed out loud, letting the other warring emotions recede like ocean waves. They had got me. They’d got me good.

I chided myself for having let the old fears of darkness get the better of me, while the last shreds of light were snuffed out by darkness as the remaining tiny red sliver of the sun sank beneath the ocean waves and day ceded to night.

Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to walk with you again!

I walked on towards the food truck, dreaming of a double jalapeño burger …

If you liked this story, then you might like the next “doll” story.

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