Death’s clutches

Fragrant strings of jasmine were draped loosely on her shimmering black ringlets, outlining her lovely face. Her glistening brown eyes gazed desperately at the doctor, clinging to fragile hopes, her tender pink lips shaping the words, “Is he… dead?”

The doctor looked up at her, wearing an agonized look, and muttered slowly, in a strained voice, “I am afraid, he is, my dear. He…”

My ears blocked out his dull voice, my gaze shifting to her. Slender wrists, adorned with intricate swirls of dark red mehendi slacked lifelessly to a side. Tears traced their way down her pale cheeks. Bedecked in jewels from head to toe, in all the splendour of a newlywed bride, my sister-in-law leaned on the frame of the door, and slunk to a side, her tears giving way to full-blown weeping.

Beautiful and just as graceful as a newly-blossomed flower, she always managed to hold me spellbound, no matter what mood she happened to be in.

I remember her remarking to me, once, that she could have gone for a career in films. She wasn’t great at acting, she said, but well, she was very pretty. I couldn’t have agreed more… her charm certainly rivals those of today’s leading actresses.

Being the youngest in the family, my opinions were always deemed immature, even when they weren’t. I remember one rainy evening, when my brother announced, abruptly, that he was engaged to her. Everyone in the hall roared and shrieked that he had been too hasty, my elder sister even throwing a water bottle at him in her rage. Our old ancient house in the old ancient village seemed to be the refuge of only hopelessly old-fashioned people. I was his lone supporter all the way through, as he battled with everyone, who insisted that he was a thorough fool for doing such a thing without consulting anyone.

But I remember the way the same family’s attitude underwent a drastic change, the day she came to meet us. I saw their hearts melt on the spot. They went into a trance and absentmindedly agreed that yes, he had done the right thing. She was an angel, earning everybody’s praises with her pleasant manners and dazzling smiles. She had the sort of charm that could twist you from absolutely infuriated to happy and good-natured, just with her sweet voice.

Before I knew it, wedding preparations had begun in full swing. Invitations were being sent out by the dozen as my father barked out orders regarding food and beverages for the Big Day. My mother fussed about the new silk saris needed while my sister picked out the venue decorations with her son perched on her hip.

The wedding was surely the grandest one our family had seen. The hall was lit by numerous multi-coloured lights and ornamented by flowers of every possible hue. The lunch was delicious. Dev and Rhea sat at the altar, sweating profusely and chanting mantras tiredly. And then, they were bride and groom.

No one could tell that they wouldn’t be, for long, though…

I woke up late today, my calm, peaceful sleep shattered by ear-splitting wails. I ran blindly to my brother’s room to see Rhea on the verge of tears, shaking him frantically; He was sprawled on the floor lifelessly, just outside the shower-room, a red towel around his waist.

I tried to find out something from Rhea, but she was so distraught that she couldn’t even speak clearly. I grabbed a phone from the nightstand, my trembling fingers dialling the number of our family doctor, my frightened tone echoing through the speaker…

Now, I tried to stifle a sob as the doctor’s voice disoriented my thoughts. “-died as a result of a fracture at the rear end of his skull. My dear, don’t weep… you are so pretty, don’t you deserve someone better looking?”

This horrified me. I’d always thought of my brother as handsome… but then again, Rhea was just too beautiful for her own good.

I smiled sickly at the doctor. “We don’t want your advice, thank you very much.”

The doctor bowed politely and left, shutting the door behind him.

I turned back to Rhea, my grin immediately curving into a distressed frown. Rhea coughed and murmured sadly in a strangled voice. “Mahita…” She was on the verge of a breakdown again. I patted her shoulder and began gently, “Calm down, Rhea. What… exactly happened?”

“Dev was-” struggling to control her tears, she panted slowly. “Dev was taking a shower… I was braiding my hair, in front of the mirror…” She took a deep breath. “Suddenly I heard a loud thud, and I turned around-” She choked, unable to continue.

“It’s okay. Shh.” My voice couldn’t even soothe me, but I tried not to cry, for her sake. She wiped her tears with the end of her sari, pulling herself together. “Dev s-slipped on that soap-” She pointed to a light pink object with a faded streak behind it. “And f-fell down.”

She looked ready to cry again, so I didn’t push her further. I placed a hand on her head reassuringly. “Go get some sleep.” She looked at me sadly and collapsed on the bed, hugging and crying into her pillow.

I entered the kitchen and emerged with a hot bowl of soup, handing it to her. “Here you go, Rhea.” She gazed at me through tear-stained eyes and gave me a heartfelt hug. “Thanks, Mahita…”

I then walked tiredly to the room of the tragedy, my heart clenched with sorrow. My poor, dear, brother… deprived mercilessly of a contented life he could have led with Rhea.

I surveyed the room keenly. It was a large room, with an adjoining small bathroom, holding a shower, on the opposite wall. Next to the door where I was standing was a steel sink with a violet cup full of colourful toothbrushes, and above it, a round mirror with a traditional wooden frame. In a corner of the room lay our old cream-and-orange weighing machine. It was an otherwise empty room, the only other article being an unwashed pink-turned-grey mat. My eyes travelled to my brother, lying motionless, one wrist behind his back, and another curled up on the floor.

I stared at Dev. His posture worried me. Suspicion was darkening my thoughts. No, it can’t be!!! my innocent heart screamed, but I knew better. My doubts were confirmed when I glanced at the weighing machine.

The bell rang suddenly and I jumped, startled. “Dev! Open the door! It’s us!” My father rattled impatiently at the door. Drained of all my energy, I slowly opened it. My father beamed at me. “Mahita!” He hugged me and smiled fondly. “We’ve got the jewellery. Where are Dev and Rhea?”

My heart sank.

“Rhea is sleeping.” I told him silently. “And Dev… is… dead.”

“What??” My sister clutched my shoulders, alarmed. “Y-You’re joking, right?”

“Stop scaring us, idiot.” My grandfather playfully punched my arm.

“No!” I lost control. “Go look for yourself! In the bathroom! Dev…”

My mother didn’t let me complete my sentence. She ran as fast as she could, and froze at the entrance.

“Dev!!!” She took one look at him, and let out a terrified scream. She panted across the room and hugged him, tears streaming down her eyes.

I stood transfixed as the whole family raced after my mother and halted at the door of the room, eyes watering.

“How did… he die?” My father looked at me questioningly, trying hard to control his tears.

“You won’t believe this… but…”

“But what?” My sister squeezed her eyelids, sorrow-stricken. “But what, Mahita?”

“R-Rhea murdered him.”

————————————————————————————————-

Dear Mahita,

I didn’t plan on telling anyone, but you’ve been like a sister to me, so I thought you’ll feel better knowing the truth.

I was pretending to be asleep, preparing to come out, rubbing my teary eyes, but then I heard your accusation. And I was scared, Mahita. What was going to happen to me? I ran out the open door, hoping you all wouldn’t notice me. You were so wrapped up in your grief that you didn’t turn back and spot me, thank god. I know I’m such a coward, but…

I never thought that you’d figure it out. You and your family were so naive. Everyone thought I liked Dev… but I didn’t. In fact, I thought he was ugly. But my parents forced me to get married to him, tempted by the jewels your family was offering, and the lavish wedding you agreed to host. We could never have afforded it. I had no choice. I plastered a fake smile on my face and pretended that everything was all right. But it wasn’t. And that’s when I realised how much I hated the sight of him.

So I plotted to kill him, which, I know, is a little bit extreme, but to me, it was the only way out. I would be with your family, living a happy life, being cherished by all of you, but without that repulsive creature. So when he emerged from the bathroom and stood at the mirror, brushing, I began to hit the weighing scale repeatedly on his head. He screamed in pain and collapsed. Terrified that you’d wake up, I hurriedly dragged him near the bathroom and placed the weighing scale back in its place, though it showed fifteen instead of zero, malfunctioning because of the impact. But I had no time. I quickly grabbed some soap from the soap dish and wetted it, dragging a little line across. I then wailed, and began to shake him frantically. And you rushed in, and got fooled straight away. I lied to you that day – I am a brilliant actress.

I don’t know what gave me away – was it the scale or the toothbrush in his hand?

Whatever it was, I’m running away. And never coming back. I’m sorry for what I did… although I know you will never forgive me, how many ever times I might beg you to. He’s your brother, after all.

Rhea

 

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