The old man woke up with a start. He looked around groggily and squinted as his eyes settled on the cloudy sky above. A droplet of rain landed on his forehead. He brushed it off and sat up. The little puppy that had been sleeping beside him on the stone bench sat up too. The inclement weather had driven most of the people back home and apart from a few stray dogs, a couple of cab drivers and some pedestrians, the lane was largely empty. He ran a hand through his unkempt hair, rose, stumbled and then steadying himself, began to walk towards the little tea shop at the end of the lane. The puppy followed him. It knew that a treat was in store.
He sat on the little stool outside the tea stall while the puppy settled at his feet.
“Will pay tomorrow,” he grunted as the young boy, who worked at the stall handed him a cup of black tea and two biscuits.
The boy nodded and held out a biscuit to the puppy.
“Here, take these too,” the old man dropped the two biscuits on the ground, much to the delight of the puppy.
He sipped his tea noisily and stared into the distance. He wasn’t sure what had woken him up. It wasn’t the drizzle of rain. It was something else. Perhaps it was a dream. Hazy images of faces came flooding into his mind. Had he really seen those faces in his dream? He shook his head restlessly. Perhaps he needed to go back.
He thumped the cup of tea back on the table, and started walking in a rush. The poor puppy, who was relishing his treat, looked up baffled and followed the old man.
Mahesh contemplated if he could ever escape his demons as he waited for his turn in the lounge of the clinic. He was referred to this shrink by his counselor at the jail. Worried by his disturbed bouts of sleep and multiple instances of waking up with a shriek in the middle of the night, his wife Sarla had pushed him to visit his counselor at the jail where he worked for several years.
That was months ago. But he chose to live in denial. It couldn’t be that serious after all, he thought.
“For years I have experienced death, up and close in the jail.” his reasoning hardly sounded convincing to his own ears as he recalled those harrowing faces and the noises that woke him up every other night. Last night turned out to be even worse when he couldn’t even close his eyes.
To get some fresh air, he decided to venture out and take a stroll in the nearby community park. Sleep eluded him as his heart raced and images of them, with a black shroud around their heads and a nook around their neck caused the bile to rise in his gut.
He threw up whatever little he had had for dinner and sat himself down on the bench. He didn’t want to go back home. Sarla would start over again.
“You must see the shrink. The contact number and the reference note from the jail counselor are in your wallet.” She would whine.
May be I should concede to her advise after all. Mahesh reprimanded himself as he got distracted by a wet sensation on the bare skin around the straps of his chappals.
“Aah! Is it you again?” Mahesh sighed and picked up the puppy in his lap and ruffled his fur affectionately.
“I thought that I was executing a deserving sentence…” his upper lip quivered as he tried to find some semblance of sympathy in the puppy’s eyes who continued to look at him with no intentions in particular. The little ball of fur had come to recognize him, because in this big bad apathetic world, it was this old man who showed some sympathy towards him every morning when he came to have his tea at the tea-stall. Mahesh was definitely surprised that the puppy had recognized him even in the dead of night. Dogs are not called a man’s best friend for no reason thought Mahesh, as he continued to throw pebbles and the puppy hopped around him in an attempt to bring them back to him.
Just when Mahesh thought that he had unthrottled his anxiety, exhaustion got the better of him and he let out a throaty gasp. His entire body shook involuntarily. He put the puppy down and lay himself down on the bench, his head resting on his hands. It must have been the calming effect of the cool October mid-night breeze that he did not realize when sleep engulfed him.
In the morning, he woke up to the dreams of the same faces. Disoriented, he had a cup of tea, and went back home, pulled out the piece of paper that had the clinic’s contacts and booked an appointment.
The air conditioning in the clinic had a calming effect on him. He realized though with disdain that in hurry he had left home in his chappals only. As he waited for his name to be called, Mahesh recalled how everyone had advised him against taking up that job.
“Why do you want to do this?” since the time left for his retirement was a couple of months away, everybody around him tried to deter him. But he was resolute.
“Do you have any idea, I will earn almost double my current salary for the rest of my job term, and for my pension too!” he tried to explain to Sarla.
“But…do you realize that no one else has applied for this job? ” Sarla tried to drive home a point.
“Oh ho Sarla, there are hardly any executions these days. It’s just these two executions and then I may not have to pull the lever ever again.” Mahesh reasoned, “The earlier executioner left the job. And the jail authorities do not want any delay in these executions.”
“Jailer sa’ab says its political pressure” he hissed in anger, “But I’d say that it’s anyway not worth any delay. These bloody rapists should have been killed the day they were arrested.”
I will not flinch a bit while pushing those two demons to their deserving end.
Or so Mahesh had thought.
That execution changed everything for him. The two convicts guilty of rape were to be executed on the same day. Such dual execution was a first in the history of the country, at least after independence. The political pressure was high and the authorities wanted everything to go as per plan without any glitches. Mahesh remained nonchalant and focused only on the extra money that he would earn. I will be able to sponsor my son’s higher education without any loans. The thought kept him occupied, as he went through his last round of counseling in preparations for the execution.
“I don’t understand the gloom around this place over this execution.” He clucked his tongue in disgust over the crime and the criminals.
I only feel bad for their families. I hear that their parents came to meet them for one last time today. I can’t even imagine their pain.
He thought, as he lay in the dormitory bed that night. He had been asked to stay back in the jail, for the execution was scheduled for early morning next day.
Mahesh stood at the altar with a straight face. He wasn’t allowed to interact with the convicts, as they were brought to stand in front of the hanging nooks of rope, with their hands tied behind them. He observed the young wasted lives salivating continuously. As he put the shroud around the first convict he heard sounds of heavy breathing. Attempts to escape the shroud by the second convict sent a wave of anger across Mahesh.
He held his lower jaw in a vice-like grip and met his eyes. And then he saw it. It was the fear of death. The young convict watched Mahesh with horror, as if he was face to face with Satan.
“Pray! Repent! Seek Forgiveness!” he spat, “At least let your parents have a reason to live and continue to believe in God”. In reaction, the convict’s eyes moistened. And then he went all calm, pursed his lips and closed his eyes in submission. And just like that, without any warning, Mahesh found his heart filled with pity.
I have a job to execute.
Mahesh turned around to stand near the lever. He recalled the reason why these men were being executed, causing the anger to cloud the recent sense of pity. At the tick of the clock, he received his signal in the form of a whistle and he pulled the lever with all his might. He didn’t turn to look at the hanging bodies. He heard later that they had both struggled for a couple of seconds before going still.
Hours later the sense of pity returned. He felt the urge to see the dead bodies in the morgue. On his way he heard the wails of the mourning families, waiting to claim the dead bodies for last rites.
“Was he finally repentant of his actions?” one mother asked the morgue in-charge, as she cried inconsolably. The words threw off-guard the composure he had managed to maintain since morning.
Mahesh froze. His head was a onerous mixture of anger and pity. He sighed heavily. And then he nodded,
“Yes! He was rueful. He asked me to tell you that he was sorry for bringing this shame on you.” he whispered the lie and turned around.
In the days that followed, the contrite eyes of the young convict, and the grieving faces of the parents began to haunt Mahesh. He had difficulty in sleeping and felt anxious all the time. The jail counselor, after few sessions diagnosed Mahesh with a psychological condition – PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress disorder). A few days later he was sent on a medical leave, to join back only after full recovery. He was to officially retire a month later.
Last night, he had managed to fall asleep on the park bench, but was woken up by the same set of faces staring at him. The keening of that mother reverberated in his mind even when he was awake.
It’s time to see the shrink!
He hoped to unravel the guilt his soul was imposing on his mind.
I just did my job. Do they hate me? I know they did not deliberately bring up a demon of a son. If given a chance, would the convicts have genuinely been penitent and led a virtuous life after a term in the jail? Did the parents deserve this shame to befall on them? And then there is that lie I told that mother…. would she ever forgive me, if she knew that I lied to her about her dying son? Or has it given her that one straw to clutch on and live for the rest of her days? And will this shrink be able to erase the memories of those petrified eyes, and the lamenting parents from my conscience?
His mind and his soul got into another endless tug of war as he waited for his turn to meet the shrink and seek redemption for a job executed well.
Do share your reviews in the comments and rate the story out of 10.
If you have participated in ArttrA-2, add a hashtag #rulfy at the end of your comment/review. The author of this story would return their comment/review when your story is shared.
You may use the rulfy tracker and add your name in the first row if not already available and start writing ‘R’s in your column for the stories you’d rulfied on the left.
Rulfy tracker: https://1drv.ms/x/s!ApiLwn00sMcLgXQ1QE-1l4tIL_Q6
Read more from ArttrA-2 here: https://writers.artoonsinn.com/category/arttra-2/
Arttra 2 event: https://writers.artoonsinn.com/arttra-2-prompts/
Photo by Gerd Altmann