Those Blasted Lands
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
I really should have left that e-mail alone.
In my defence, I must say I was curious. It was from an old
lover of mine, whom I hadn’t heard from in years; an old lover, moreover, who
had left my life under slightly mysterious circumstances. She was a rather
strange person anyway, heavily involved in the occult and at the same time one
of the best, albeit self-taught, software professionals I’d ever met, a mix of
hardheaded mathematical logic, woolly metaphysics, and rather amazing
imagination. She’d come into my life in her own weird way, touched me with her
magic wand, and vanished, presumably forever; and I’d thought never to hear
from her again.
But there it was, in my mailbox; her name, so unusual that
there surely couldn’t be another person with that precise combination of
syllables. I hesitated a moment before I opened the mail, remembering her as
I’d seen her last.
She’d leaned casually against the door, watching me boil
water for coffee. She’d learned to wear bright colours while she was with me,
but that morning she’d been as I’d seen her first, in black leather jacket,
jeans and low boots. Her nail polish was as black as her hair, and her lips
were dark maroon against the paleness of her face.
"What are you looking at?" I’d asked her, because the
intensity of her gaze had made me nervous, somehow. One never got used to those
eyes; an intense grey-green with flecks of hazel.
"You," she’d said. "I’m looking at you."
"Why?" I’d asked, and turned away to the coffee, because the
water was boiling. When I was through, I turned round...and she was no longer
there. At first I’d thought she’d gone for a walk as she did sometimes, but I’d
found that her things were gone. She’d evidently packed them while I’d been
jogging that morning, or, later, had been in the shower. I’d never heard from
The email comprised one single line: "I need you to
look at this attachment," and was signed with the special diminutive of her
name, the one that only she and I knew. That clinched it; it was she, and
I hesitated for a moment or two before opening the
attachment. It wasn’t that I feared a virus, and my antivirus programme’s one
of the best money can buy, but because I remembered that there was really
nothing one could reasonably predict when it was from her. Besides, I was still
wondering why she’d emailed me after such a long time...and why. It wasn’t as
though we’d parted in acrimony, or even with any desire to separate on my side,
so it couldn’t be revenge. I’d almost decided that it was probably one of her
with her current lover, and decided to delete it unseen, when I read that one
line message again: "I need you to look at this attachment." There was
something very unlike her in that "need". Still thinking over that, I’d clicked
on the attachment, and downloaded it wondering what on earth it was all about.
It was only a picture, and one that seemed to make no sense
whatsoever. It had evidently been taken in a room with walls of stone, poorly
lighted and probably very old. On a crumbling stone shelf, a human skull was
propped up on a thick leather-bound book, on which also stood an hourglass. To
the left was a candle, and a long-stemmed pipe, of the sort I’d heard opium
smokers used to use, lay in the foreground next to a pair of dice.
I felt like scratching my head. There was not a clue what it
meant, or why she should have sent it to me at all, let alone tell me that she
"needed" me to see it. It was late, though, and I decided to go to bed and have
another look in the morning, and reply to her asking what it meant.
I woke sometime in the very early hours of the morning with
a conviction that I had to check on the picture, again. The room was dark and
freezing cold, much colder than it had any right to be at this time of year,
and the goosebumps were rising on my bare arms, but the urge was so compelling
that I got up and stumbled to the laptop, not even pausing to turn on the
light. I’d not closed down the computer, just hibernated it, and when the
screen lit up under my fingers, I could access the picture directly.
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