RIContest: Between the Shadows / Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Dogs bark. They always do. At killers. Robbers. Ghosts.

He ignores the dogs and jumps off the wall on lithe limbs.

Around fifty metres between the wall and the house. A naked bulb in the veranda. A single streetlamp outside. The light shifts from red to amber to dull grey.

He leaps from shadow to shadow.

He is used to shadows. In the light, he feels his identity evaporate. The dark patches change shape, their contours hazy. He stands among their shifting edges. From here, he can see the squat building clearly. The long veranda. Two windows. The entrance. Door ajar. Many people lived here once. Now, a handful, perhaps two or three. Not important. The one he seeks is here.

He must do what he is here for. Locate his target. Kill. Glide away into the darkness. Neat. One action for all the actions of the past.

There’s darkness enough here to hide an army.

He steps towards the house, then stops short. Voices! He hears them clearly.

Cordon Convoy Commando Camp

The clatter of words lived in the past. He stumbles back into the darkness.

Fire! Hide!

Police! Hide!

Ambush Shoot Trap

Surrender!

Fire!

He takes two cotton balls out of his pockets – grimy with use – and plugs his ears. The staccato of rifle fire – the first sounds he heard when he was taken to the camp. To join the insurgents.To be one. He shared neither their anger nor their language. Plucked off the edges of society. That’s what he was. That’s what he is. On the run. WANTED! His only identity.

So much bloodshed. Innocent blood. Corrupt blood. Fresh, red blood. Dry, brown blood.  

The smell of it clogs his nose, mouth. He spits at the wall of the house. Keeps spitting. Perfectly aimed in the silence.

Silence?

He stands still. Unplugs his ears. Waits, for the voices to return.

Silence.

He feels no anger for anybody. Not the parents who abandoned him. Not the drunken uncle who beat him to near-death. Every day. Not the world that hunts him. He too hunted it at one time. At the command of one man. The one who took him deep into the forests. Who forced anger on him. Anger that he didn’t feel. Who taught him to take lives. Maim. Hurt. Hate.

Eyes on the target! Mind on hatred. The man’s words. Whom was he fighting? Why? He didn’t always understand the answers. He didn’t always bother to. In the constantly relocating camps, some knew the answers, some didn’t. At day’s end, they got food. A bed or mattress. Or the forest floor to sleep. They got firepower at the end of their fingers. It made them feel like kings of the forest.

That man lives peacefully in this house.

Finish him.  

He scans the open space in front of the house then leaps across. Through the veranda’s red glow. Into the house.

Inside, the darkness seems impenetrable. He hits his head against a wall. Stubs his toe. But he keeps moving.

It is not all dark. From somewhere inside the house, a dull light. He moves towards it.

Locate target.

Eliminate. Not maim. Not hurt. Not kidnap. Not argue. A clean shot. End the dog’s life.

Hatred squeezes his chest. He had no reason to kill those others.

Focus. Eyes on target.

*

His target is on a bed.
Filthy. Stinking of the body’s waste. Alone. Unable to move to speak. Chest heaving.

He stands at the threshold, wavering between two worlds, one half of his face in the shadows, the other lit up by the amber-red light of the room.

He gapes at the worm-eaten man. Inhales the smells. Pus. Urine. Shit. Sweat.  

Quietly, he retreats into his own shadow on the slate-grey wall.

The slightest sound could revive the evil of the past.



Sucharita Dutta-Asane is an award winning writer based in Pune, India. Her debut collection Cast Out and Other Stories was published in 2018 (Dhauli Books, Odisha) and received critical acclaim across reviews and interviews. Her short stories have appeared in various literary journals and anthologies. She is an independent book editor and teaches courses in Writing and Editing. 

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