Anjali awoke suddenly at an ungodly hour of the night with her heart racing and her arms outstretched, clawing the air for something tangible to grasp. She sat up and peered frantically into the thick, soupy darkness that was her room, as if hoping to glimpse a remnant of her dream. Her voice was shaky as she began to call tentatively into the night, “Mama?” and stopped. She must not wake the house, and besides, what had she been dreaming? Any memory of her dream had vanished as soon as she awoke, leaving her panicked from a nightmare she could not recall.
She got up and tiptoed out of her room and down the hall, the long skirt of her nightgown whispering against her spindly legs and her thick black braid dancing feverishly behind her. She crept to the door of her parents’ room, where her father slept fitfully, in pain from an illness Anjali was not supposed to know he had. The room was as dark and stagnant as her own; even the curtains lay still by the open window. But she was reassured to hear the shallow breathing of her father accompanied by the gentle snore of her mother, who was slumped, dozing, in the rocking chair by the bedside. Hoping to find comfort with her cousin, Anjali continued down the hall when she saw a light flicker in the living room. As she approached the room, she saw that indeed a lamp had been lit and she heard the soft shuffling step of an older person.
When Anjali entered the room, she was shocked to find her father’s older sister padding softly around the room in her bare feet with her green sari swishing about her ankles, humming tunelessly the way she always had. The lights reflecting off the tiny mirrors on her sari danced wildly around the room as she paused, bangles clinking lightly, and studied the photograph above the fireplace. The sparkling, mirthful eyes of Anjali’s father twinkled down at them from his perch above the hearth.
“Auntie!” Anjali cried, thoroughly puzzled. “What are you doing here?” Anjali could not fathom how her aunt could have appeared in her living room in the middle of the night since she had been dead for five years.
“I’m just here for a visit, Anju, child, just a visit,” said her aunt in the low, calm voice she had always used. Her aunt smiled as she glided across the floor toward a round, inlaid table on which sat an old lamp.
“That’s Baba’s favorite lamp, Auntie,” cautioned Anjali as if to warn her not to go too near.
“Yes, Anju, I know” replied the old woman as she slowly and methodically began to unscrew its lightbulb.
“You must not, Auntie, no!” Anjali cried in horror. “What are you doing?” She watched, frozen, as her aunt proceeded. The woman turned sad, knowing eyes toward her young niece and whispered in her steady voice, “Anju, I am taking your father with me.” With that, she gave the lightbulb one final twist, letting the light flicker before going out.
Anjali woke half screaming, half crying, this time from a nightmare that was all too real. She lay in her bed while heaving sobs wracked her body for several minutes until she became aware of a new sound. In the next room, a woman was weeping, and all around the house there were the quiet nighttime sounds of her relatives, recently wakened. In a flash, Anjali was out of bed, feet pounding down the hall to her father’s room. She was met at the door by her older cousin, who swept her up into her arms and whispered kindly, “None of your running around tonight, Anju, your father has died.” Anjali peered over her cousin’s shoulder to the bed and saw her mother bent over, crying softly. When she was able to glance back toward the door, Anjali saw her old aunt waiting out in the hallway. With a nod toward Anjali, her aunt tucked the lightbulb into the folds of her shimmering emerald sari as she padded slowly down the hall and out of sight.