He was just about to sit on the rickety old chair when a loud knock resounded through the room. ‘Sadiq Chacha! It’s me Amir,’ a young man’s voice came from behind the wooden door with faded white paint. ‘Sadiq Chacha,’ he called again insistently knocking without pause.
‘Yes, yes. I am coming,’ the old man grumbled, shuffling towards the door with his cane tapping a dull, clicking sound. He slid back the metal lock and swung open the door. ‘Why are you banging? Do you want to bring the door down?’ he asked the man standing before him, his bushy white brows furrowed, partly in confusion and partly in anger.
Sadiq Chacha was an old man with creaky joints, a bent back and had low tolerance for noise. Besides, it was unlike Amir to shout and knock so loudly. He was a polite young man who would rap smartly once or twice, say his name and wait for the door to open. This sort of behaviour was unusual for him. Sadiq Chacha peered into Amir’s face. The customary smile and calm demeanour was gone, replaced by a grim expression. His black hair - which he kept neatly combed back - was now in disarray. He wasn’t even wearing gloves or the brown woollen cap he normally favoured. Sadiq Chacha was taken aback by his appearance. ‘Amir beta, is everything all right?’
Amir shook his head, ‘May I come inside.’
‘Sure, beta, come inside,’ the old man replied, stepping aside to let Amir in.
He shut the door immediately to keep the frigid wind from entering the room and stealing all the heat away. It had snowed again last night, the icy grip of winter seemed to be tightening swiftly day by day. He didn’t think Amir would visit him in such weather, when cold winds were blowing and snow had covered every inch of the ground. Sadiq Chacha kept his hut as cosy as possible. His frail body wasn’t suited to the chilly winters anymore.
Amir seated himself on a small stool near the fire facing the chair where he knew Sadiq Chacha would sit. ‘I suppose you’re surprised by my visit.’
‘I am,’ Sadiq Chacha replied. ‘Why would you visit me in such cold weather without gloves or a cap and in such a mysterious mood?’
Amir gave him a feeble smile which vanished immediately, ‘I am wearing a coat.’
‘And still you’re shivering. What’s wrong?’
Amir looked back at the fire, chafing his hands. The crackling of woods and flames filled the long, heavy silence that stretched afterwards. He held out his frozen fingers in front of the coiling flames to thaw them.
Sadiq Chacha sat down on his chair, waiting for Amir to speak first. Amir took a deep breath. ‘It’s Rauf,’ he said, finally looking at Sadiq Chacha, his voice steady. ‘He’s dead.’
‘What!’ the old man said incredulously, lurching forward. His eyes widened, the pupils dilating with fear. He gripped his cane, his wrinkled hands shaking.
Amir turned his gaze back to the fire, his grey eyes distant, reflecting the leaping flames.
‘Rauf is dead,’ he repeated.
‘B … bu … But how, beta? He was fine. He was fine when I met him a few days ago.’
Amir didn’t reply.
‘Don’t tell me it has happened again. Don’t tell me this is the third one this month. It must be natural. It can’t be.’ Sadiq Chacha croaked, his voice wavering.’ I won’t believe it. This can’t be possible. He must have died by natural causes.’ He paused noticing the shadow pass over Amir’s face. ‘It isn’t, is it?
Amir nodded his head.
‘How?’ Sadiq Chacha asked, his voice a faint rasp … like dead leaves whispering in the wind.
Neither of them said a word for a long time, their eyes trained on the crackling fire. Amir had buried his hands deep in the grey coat’s pockets, a pained expression on his face.
Sadiq Chacha sat slumped in his chair, his thin shoulders sagging with the depressing weight of the news. His knobby wrinkled fingers shaking uncontrollably.
The room was dark save only for the golden-orange glow from the fireplace. The low illumination casting their faces half in light and half in shadows. Amir took another deep breath, the scent of rosemary in the room had little calming effect. He glanced at Sadiq Chacha and instantly felt guilty. Maybe he shouldn’t have told the old man about Rauf’s death in such an abrupt way. The poor man was clearly distressed, his aged eyes were filled with tears, a drop fell and he quickly wiped it away.
Amir averted his gaze and ran a hand through his disheveled hair. He shifted on his stool and focused on the room instead.
It wasn’t much to look at; a small room with a dirt floor, a charpai in a corner with a chadar, a green rizai and pillows arranged on it. There was a side table next to the charpai with a pitcher of water and a metal cup. Amir noted that the door to the kitchen was closed, usually it would be open and a waft of different scents of flora would be coming from it. A faint herbal smell still hung in the room. A large wooden table, with lots of woven straw baskets stacked on top of each other, was next to the kitchen door. The table was laden with bowls full of pastes, bottles full of oil and herbs, jars with floral designs, small cutting knives and a potted green plant. It was difficult to see clearly what else was on the table in the dim light.
Frowning, Amir realized that curtains were drawn over the only window in the hut. He remembered laughing, one summer day last year, at why would anyone want a window on the wall opposite the front door.
‘How are you going to know who is knocking? You should have had the window on the other wall so you could see anyone who is coming to your hut.’
Sadiq Chacha had waved dismissively. ‘Maybe I don’t want to see people coming to my hut.’
Despite his gruff attitude and raspy voice, Sadiq Chacha had a heart of gold. The neighbours found his solitary lifestyle and reserved nature strange but still respected and cared for him. Amir knew once you got to know Sadiq Chacha and got in his good books, he was excellent company to be around.
At last Sadiq Chacha cleared his throat. He lifted his wobbling chin and inquired, ‘Have you visited his family yet? What happened? Who could have done such a monstrous and evil thing?’
‘No, Chacha. I haven’t visited the family yet. I got the bad news around 10:00 a.m. It was Raju who came to tell me. The jinaza prayer will be held tomorrow afternoon.’
‘Why didn’t you visit his family first?’ Sadiq Chacha asked.
‘They didn’t want visitors at that time, so I came over to you instead-’
‘To make sure I was fine.’ Sadiq Chacha finished for him.
‘Yes, I feared the worst. I couldn’t imagine you being alone at such a time.’ Amir conceded.
Sadiq Chacha shook his head as if to dispel the unwanted thoughts from his mind. ‘Who could have done it and why?’
That same question had been incessantly on Amir’s mind since the first murder. Who was the killer?
‘Rauf was a good man. Why would anyone want to kill him in such a horrible way? He had never done anyone any harm,’ Sadiq Chacha asked mournfully.
‘A murderer has no conscience; he doesn’t care who he kills or harms.’ Amir looked up, his eyes glittering eerily in the firelight. ‘After the first murder he commits, he doesn’t remain a man any longer. He turns into a monster.’
To be continued