Lina slumped into the chair as Chameli left her room. She did not know how to tell her mother that she did not like to visit Reba Auntie's house. Reba Auntie was her mother's best friend and Lina had been visiting her old fashioned house with a delightful orchard since childhood. It had not been such a big problem when Lina was a tiny tot, in fact it was a welcome thought to her child's heart. But lately it had become a source of tremendous discomfort and terror.
Lina's mother had been planning on a whole day retreat since her father was away in Chittagong on a tour. “What a wonderful thing would it be, wouldn't it?” her mother cajoled her. “I know you love that old place. And I'm sure Ruman and Rajon will be happy to see us too.” Chameli was making plans and laughing without noticing the shadow of sheer panic in her daughter's eyes. How could she tell that there was a monster in Reba Auntie's house and only Lina could see him. When he was younger, Lina did not mind so much, but now he made her feel extremely uncomfortable. On their last visit, he did something so freakish that she lost all urges to visit their place ever again.
Lina had been chewing on a guava that Reba Auntie had given her and turning the pages of a David Eddings book. She had borrowed the book from Rajon who was her age, intensely relieved that his elder brother was not at home. She sat on the swing that hung right by the front porch and felt no less enchanted than the tiny princess by the magical caves of Ulgoland when suddenly the swing received a vehement push from behind. She yelped and saw that the demon was standing with a wicked twinkle in his eyes. It was obvious that he had just returned home and was pleased to see his object of interest seated in the swing.
Lina cringed and stuttered, “W..what are .. you doing here?”
“Bah!” he laughed. “This is my home. I should ask you the question.”
“My mom is visiting. And I am here with her.”
“Of course. Therefore, you're my guest. I am trying to entertain you.”
“I… don't like… your kind of … entertainment.”
His eyes burnt with fierce anger and he said, “You'll learn to like it, you—“ he used an epithet so vile that Lina cringed again.
Naturally, Lina did not look forward to visiting Reba Auntie. But how to tell her mother that she did not feel like going? Would she understand? For her mother, spending a day at Reba Auntie's house was like spending a day on the ninth cloud. But for Lina, it was just terrifying. She felt close to a panic attack and ran to the bathroom. How could her mother seem so impervious to such threats? She just sailed out of Lina's room humming an old Bengali song.
Lina thought and thought but could not think of any excuse that would deter her mother from going to Reba Auntie's house. Her glance fell on the table clock sitting on the mantelpiece with the face of a monster on top. Mahim Uncle had brought it from some Eastern European country. The monster was a gargoyle, he had explained. Lina did not care; she found it hideous. Yet she could not just throw it away because it was her favourite uncle who had given it to her. At this point, she thought that the gargoyle looked exactly like the monster at Reba Auntie's house. Lina sighed and got up to get dressed. As she looked at herself in the bathroom mirror her eyes welled up. Her friends said that she was growing pretty. Is that why the monster was causing her all these troubles? But what did he want? Lina felt a cold shiver slithering down her spine.
“Ma, I wanted to tell you something.“ Lina stood rigid and erect as she addressed her mother.
“What, you're not ready yet?” Chameli whirled around and exclaimed. She had a colourful array of sarees scattered on her bed. Then she noticed Lina's face which was swollen from crying. “What is it?” she exclaimed.
“I don't want to go to Reba Auntie's house,” Lina said stonily.
“But why?” Chameli was completely lost.
“I am not feeling well,” Lina replied in a wooden voice. “You leave me with Nanu and pick me up when you come back home.”
Chameli had made a lot of plans with her old chum and suddenly she lost it, “What's got into you? Do you have to ruin my plans? We've been planning to do this picnic for a long time now and you've to be ill today of all days?”
Lina looked at her mother blankly and turned away before repeating, “I am unwell and I won't go there.”
When an exasperated and tired Chameli returned to her mother's place in the evening to pick up her daughter, Lina's grandmother was waiting for her. Chameli was exhausted from the day's excursion and did not want to talk to her mother. But Hasna Banu told her get in because she had things to tell her.
“I thought you're a mature and caring mother, Molly,” came Hasna Banu's somber voice.
Chameli was taken aback. “What are you talking about? Lina isn't that ill. She's just playing one of her…”
She could not finish when Hasna Banu shook her head and said, “Lina has developed a high fever.”
“What?” Chameli sprang up. “When? Why didn't you call me?”
“I thought you're more interested in spending time with your friend than caring for your daughter,” the scathing reply caught Chameli by utter surprise.
“Mother, I … I didn't know that Lina had taken so ill. Why didn't she tell me?”
Hasna Banu looked at her daughter. “Did you ask Lina what was wrong? No. You just screamed at her for ruining your day. Did you ask why she does not want to go to your friend's house? Do you really care?” her voice was pointedly accusing.
Chameli looked at her daughter lying on her side in the small cot in her grandmother's room. Lips trembling, she bent over Lina who was shivering under a quilt and was delirious. “Ma…please don't make me go to Reba Auntie's house… Please Ma… Ruman Bhaiya is a monster… Can't I be little Lina again?” Chameli fell on her knees by the cot, tears streaming down her face. “O my darling,” she whispered. “I'm so sorry. I'm just so sorry.”
Sohana Manzoor is Assistant Professor, Department of English & Humanities, ULAB. She is also the Deputy Editor of the Star Literature & Review Pages of The Daily Star.