I came across the heavy pouch as I sifted through the “organized junk” in my storeroom.
After my mother passed away three years ago, I had inherited her “non-valuables.” I hadn’t been able to let them go, or go through them to sort out what to keep and what to discard.
I eased myself into a chair and examined the pouch. The drawstring bag was a dirty shade of brown but had probably been white at one time. A cord was tied around the top, settling into itself over time, with layers of grime glued to it in places. Cutting through it would have been easier but some thrifty gene in my DNA did not permit that and I pried through the knots till they came undone and unwound in spirals like a snake waking up.
I loosened the top and a metallic smell wafted out. Peering into it, not without some excitement, I saw an amalgamation of metallic objects winking back at me.
I turned the pouch upside down and the contents clattered down to the floor. They were keys of different shapes, different sizes and different metals. It took a full one minute for the penny to drop. My great grandmother’s keys! How many times had I not heard the story, each time embellished with renewed vigor?
I closed my eyes, put my hands on the keys, and something passed from the inanimate objects to my fingers and I absorbed the energy, the legacy.
My great grandmother’s name was Rabia.
Rabia’s eyes flew open. Something was not right. What had woken her up? She waited but the night blanketed all sounds. Cocooned in the stillness, she let herself be lulled back to sleep.
“Ghazhur! Ghazhur!” There it was again. Senses alert, she waited. “Ghazhur! Ghazhur!” Something scraping the ground. She sat up feeling a
little sick with foreboding.
The room was dark but Rabia had kept the kerosene lamp with the wick lowered so that when needed it could be raised. She twisted the knob clockwise. The room leapt into view etching out the familiar objects just where they were meant to be.
The hair at the nape of her head bristled, just before they stood on end. She trusted her gut feeling. Something was definitely wrong. She lowered the wick to its original position and debated her next course of action. She could just ignore the sound and go back to sleep. Or get up and investigate.
No further sound interrupted her thoughts. Allowing herself to think she had imagined the whole incident, she prepared to give way to the languor.
Then another sound intruded on her subconscious. Different this time. More like a tinkle, or a jingle. There it was again. She got up, wide awake.
Barefoot , Rabia headed toward the main door. Her hand felt for the bar that ran across the middle, bolting the door securely. But it was not in its place. She pulled the door and it gave way. Had someone gone to the outhouse? Even if someone had, they must get someone else to stay guard or bolt it from the inside. She felt a moment of irritation. How many times must “these people” be told to be careful? “These people” were her three sons and a daughter. The two elder ones were married and had rooms further down the Hall, which was the living room during the day, and converted into a bedroom for her, her husband and the baby at night. Her daughter of late had taken over the storeroom and called it her room. It was the smallest room in the house but she was happy there.
By this time Rabia’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness outside and she peered at the familiar setting. The lychee tree in the far left corner gave a reassuring nod. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. The smell of gardenia permeated her senses. Her husband had planted it many years ago. She caught herself smiling as she thought of the day he had brought the cuttings home from a friend’s house and planted it beside the well. She had recognized the few leaves jutting out of the thick stump. Gardenias were her favorite flowers. The milky white leaves coiled tightly as a bud would unwind to disclose waxy petals and the perfume would spread into the atmosphere. “It’ll perfume the air as you bathe,” he had said, giving her a hooded look. He was a quiet and sober person, not given to idle chatter but at times his words came out right.
In the other corner—diagonally opposite in the rectangular shaped backyard— the outhouse on its raised structure of stairs stood a silent witness to all visitors. In the middle stood the open space leading to the gate of the compound.
Something was wrong. A shape, no, two shapes were moving. And then as it happens only in stories, the yard suddenly brightened. Some adventurous cloud had decided to move on and the moon, a good half of it visible, was peering down at the scene in her back yard.
One dark shape morphed into a person squatting in front of a large steel trunk while another shape into a person holding the main gate open. In one split second her brain put all the images together and her heart started pounding. Burglars!
Her initial fear gave way to anger. How dare they! All the jewelry she owned, including what she hoped to give her daughter at her wedding, was in that gray steel trunk.
All possible courses of action flitted through Rabia’s brain. Start shouting? But the burglars might attack her or run away with the trunk. And what if no one awoke?
She retraced her steps on silent feet and shook her husband’s arm.
“Get up! Get up!” she whispered. Except for the stream of air that made a swooshing sound as he exhaled, there was no movement.
She tried pinching him. “Get up! There’s a burglar outside!” She kept her voice low.
He snored himself awake only to turn around and mutter something in his sleep.
“Get up, the house is on fire!”
No reaction. His breathing only deepened.
She wondered if the burglars had used “graveyard dust” on them. She had heard that a sprinkle of dust from a graveyard with charms chanted onto it had the power to put whole households to sleep. Even light sleepers would not wake up though their houses were stripped clean. So why hadn’t she been affected? She’d been praying after finishing all the chores and had fallen asleep on the prayer mat in the little alcove. Perhaps the dust had failed to reach her. She was the lightest sleeper in the house anyway.
She tiptoed back to her side of the bed and fumbled under the mattress until her fingers grasped the wooden handle of a machete. She slid it out taking care not to touch anything. She lowered the wick of the kerosene lamp even further so that the room was darker than before, and tiptoed back to the door.
It was dark outside, but her eyes immediately focused on the spot where she had seen the burglars. She lifted her machete to aim at that spot when some movement alerted the two men.
And for the second time the moon joined in the fray. For the burglars it must have been a chilling sight: a deranged woman, long hair flowing around her, a machete held high over her head, stood poised like Durga.
Who was the predator? And who was the prey? Who was more scared, the woman whose life savings were being stolen by intruders, or the men who had come to prey on defenseless home owners, in the dead of night?
For one brief moment something passed between the man in front of the trunk and Rabia. It was as if she could read him, could feel him “seeing” her bare soul, too angry to be afraid anymore.
She saw him deliberate, and then move toward her. She grasped the handle of the machete and flung it across the space of the yard with all the strength she could muster. She heard a blood curdling cry vibrating in the air and then, the yard was in darkness again. Once the machete left Rabia’s hand she slumped to the ground. She had not planned her next course of action.
Pandemonium let loose. A clatter of metallic objects was followed by a voice shouting “Hurry up! Hurry up!” loud voices from neighboring houses, and a volley of voices from everywhere shouting “Chor! Chor!”
This chant was taken up by the surrounding houses, especially by those who had woken up and “Chor! Chor!” was repeated by the next set of houses. Whoever heard the faintest cry of “Chor” shouted it out with double vigor and the shout crescendoed across the Old Town (Later I was to discover that this was not just a cry for help but a security warning for all the neighbors).
Soon a crowd surrounded Rabia with bright kerosene lanterns raised over their heads. She couldn’t remember much of what happened next. Ensuring that her precious trunk was brought inside, she refused to answer any questions, only repeating “Tomorrow. I’ll tell you tomorrow. Just bolt the door!” She did notice, however, that her husband and both her sons were up. The household settled back to catch a few hours of sleep before the sun rose.
The next morning on his way to say his prayers, Rabia’s husband noticed a large metal ring with hundreds of keys hanging on it. It was the burglars’ tool of trade. They had come prepared with keys of all sizes and shapes to make their job easier and faster.
The machete was also found with what looked like dried blood on it.
There were 182 keys in total on the large metal ring. They were organized according to size, from the largest, about 5 ½ inches long to the smallest, less than an inch in length.
In days to come they were carved up among the four children and my mother got her share. We had heard the story of course, but never seen the keys. They were useless anyway. They fit no locks and locks came with their own set of keys anyway.
As I ran my fingers through the inanimate metal objects, I knew the logical thing to do was throw them away. But I couldn’t. They had belonged to my mother and my grandmother before her. And, I reasoned, in some way they were a document to the past, a legacy. And they were still good for a yarn.
Razia Sultana Khan is a fiction writer, a poet and an artist.