The Wolf of Niali

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic

In the hinterlands of India where political overlords hold sway, cattle mutilations have sparked the mysterious legend of a wolf. A taxi-driver with a dark past, more bestial than the monster out there, is forced to confront both.

As Madhab Das caught his face in the rearview mirror of the Hindustan Motors 1989 model Trekker, he saw a man whose life had been a resounding failure. The crow's feet around his eyes made him look a lot older than he actually was. Maybe that was just a thing that people told themselves to deny the silent creep of time. He even felt old, as if he were an unwitting passenger dancing to the whims of a cosmic player. And here he was, literally, in the driver seat. The irony wasn't lost on him. 

He had grown up around those parts, a sprightly young boy with bright, inquisitive eyes who stared at every bus from the city as if the passengers had disembarked from a space vehicle, having travelled millions of miles from another galaxy. They wore all manner of colourful clothing - bright sarees, printed shirts, and laced sandals - and happy faces that emanated hope. He could never really understand why anyone would want to come back to the village. What was there to come back to ?

It surely wasn't the earthen huts layered with dung-cakes and thatched roofs that fell through after the first spell of the monsoons. It surely wasn't the market which seemed to sit on its own muck, adding more layers every day as the farers yelled over their goods, vehemently spitting on and abusing anyone who poached the other's customer. And he knew it surely wasn't the people who had so conveniently accepted this life where they existed like a fish out of water, gasping through the stink until their lungs gave out. 

He had always wanted to get away from this place, find a job in the city and rise up the ladder. He would become somebody whom people would look up to with the utmost respect and speak in hushed tones -

"Did you know when he had arrived here in this city, he barely had ten rupees in his pocket ? Look at him now. Everybody wants to meet him and shake hands with him. But he is untouchable..." 

He would imagine himself smartly dressed with a respectable countenance, ignoring such flattering remarks and staring away in the distance. There was no particular occupation in his mind. Maybe something important. Where I would have to go to an office and have a desk of my own. 

"There he goes again that little bastard. Don't know what good those scraps of paper are going to do to him. Talk some sense into your son, Gouna. He should be helping me like the other boys do." 

His disgruntled father would continue to taunt him for reading any books while pumping the tube-well lever as he washed the mud off his legs. The grumblings would stop only with a swig of the cheap toddy that he would have after supper. His mother would smile at him with her tired eyes as she fanned her husband with a wicker patch. Those were the good nights. He felt at peace curled up near the dying oil lamp looking at the monotone illustrations in a tattered, discarded magazine he would find while roaming in the bazaar. 

Even at the tender age of ten he somehow knew that his father wasn't going to be around forever. It was one of those things he would fervently pray for every night before he went to sleep. While walking to school every day, he would often see him hanging around with the village dimwits. They would sit by the tobacco stall near the main road and play cards all day. Some nights they would break their "monotony" by visiting the local liquor shop only to come back home in the wee hours of the morning, inebriated and raising a hullaballoo on the streets. 

When his father dragged his feet home, he would curse his wife calling her a whore, loud enough that the neighbours heard it, and would smash all the clay pots in the kitchen for good measure. After he passed out, he would help his mother clean up the mess in the middle of the night. She would try to hide her tears from her son but he knew her pain well enough. Seeing her like this made him more angry than sad. The man was less than an animal. 

He still remembered that stormy summer night in 1999 when a cyclone from the Bay of Bengal had blown over the Cuttack area. There were no blare horns in those days. No shelters whatsoever. If you had been diligent in building your mud-house, you could hope for it to stand the force of winds. Otherwise it would just crumble like a house of cards and no matter how much you prayed, you could do absolutely nothing about it. 

By 7 pm that night, the coconut trees had started to sway in the violent gusts that rattled your door from the outside, the spectre of death asking permission to enter. The gusts would soon turn into a screech broken only by the sounds of tinfoil roofs being ripped away. As Madhab and his mother held each other's trembling hands hiding under their cot, they would realize that his father hadn't returned. 

"Do you think he would be okay, Madhab ?" His father was an irresponsible drunkard but not stupid enough to stay out in this weather. 

"He must be at Panda Behari's place, mother. Don't worry." What else could he say ? While he felt sad for his mother who still cared for her abusive husband, he held on to the hope, selfishly, that the man got hit by lightning. 

The next morning when the storm had finally abated, leaving behind a spell of harmless drizzle, the people gathered around the debris that had covered the muddy streets. Some of the young men and women had already busied themselves in removing the dead cows that had fallen prey to the cyclone. 

"It's not the weather that kills them you know. They are quiet animals. It's mostly shock. Just look at the eyes." Mahanta Sahoo was the local cow-herd who spent more time with those animals than he spent with people. So, they nodded when he put forth such profound opinion. 

"Now the gaudas (lower castes) would probably take them to make belts and shoes. Or maybe they would eat them raw, those motherfuckers."

It wasn't until mid-afternoon that someone had come running to Madhab's mother, bearing the very news she had been dreading. 

"Mausi (aunt), there has been an accident !" As his mother wailed beating her chest, the ladies from the nearby huts came down to console her. Madhab had not been shocked or sad. In fact, he had been surprised that he wasn't feeling anything. At that point, he had just been curious to know how his father had died. So he had waded through the muck and made his way to Behari's place. 

The roof had caved in and a large chunk of the front wall had disintegrated leaving behind a mixture of mud and blackened hay. They said the bamboo rafters had fallen on the men inside as they sat drinking, paying no heed to the storm. Behari's face had been crushed while a large piece of stone had broken his father's spine. A couple of men had found the bodies bent out of shape in the throes of the morning. 

"I had told him he should repair his roof many times, you know. But why would he listen ? He had other things to do like drinking all day and beating his wife." - the bystander was Behari's neighbour Gajanan Mohapatra. Every family had the same story. 

"I had even asked your father to talk some sense into him but when the time is bad, no one listens to good advice. Look where it got them." Madhab had stared blankly at him. He had even seen his lips moving but barely anything had registered in his head. This was just one of those stories people used to tell about his dad all the time. "Oh did you know what he did the other day? Shameful! And that too being an upper caste. Such a waste!" 

While putting his father's funeral pyre alight, Madhab had known that his life had changed forever. He couldn't go back to school anymore. His mother needed him and he had to find work to support her. Before he knew it, two decades had gone by as if that cyclone had sucked him in and spewed him back into the village, except for the fact that unlike time-travellers, he had aged. 

Whatever dreams he had had in his non-existent life, had faded away a long time back, leaving a bitter person behind. His haggard frame and a rapidly receding hairline had rendered the hopeful boy unrecognisable. He belonged here now. 

For fifteen hours every day he would drive the rundown Trekker he had taken on lease from Babu bhai's garage between Niali and Bhubaneswar. At about 2 am every night, he would park the vehicle near the village temple and go to sleep in the back-seat with no desire to wake up the next morning. 

* * *

It was not until June that year that people had started talking about the wolf. There had been cases of cattle mutilations before, but being isolated incidents spread out across a few villages, no one had really thought that they could be related. By the end of the sweltering summer of May, almost 350 cows had been killed and it had become important enough for the local police to actively start investigating them. Within a week, posters and pamphlets had been distributed in every village between Niali and Jallarpur. 

Anywhere you turned your head to, the bright red marquee of one of those posters would scream at you - 

REWARD ! REWARD ! REWARD !

Rs. 20,000 CASH for any information that would help CATCH the WOLF

Contact - Niali /Jallarpur Police at this address

It would be followed by the name of the Chief Inspector and the address of the station. Not that they needed it. Here everybody knew everybody. 

The poster also had a picture of an animal so vicious that it could keep you awake at night. Some local artist who had been commissioned to make the art had gotten a tad carried away with the blood and gore between the animal's teeth but it did strike the nail on the coffin. The unknown cattle-killer had now been given a face. What was a mere wolf when the villagers had learned to live with ghouls that inhabited those hundred-year-old peepul trees, strangling unsuspecting villagers who passed underneath, and banshees with twisted feet who were known to walk the fields after nightfall looking for young unmarried women ? When night fell in Niali, fireside lores came alive. 

"The police and the Forest department are sitting on their asses !" Mahanta Sahoo was a middle-aged man now but he had garnered clout around Niali. He had a large farm just outside the village with over 50 cows and 10 bullocks of his own these days. If anyone had a reason to be wary of the wolf, it was him. 

"But what makes you say that Mahanta bhai ?" The small group of people listening to him was getting bigger by the minute. They hung on to every word spouting out of his mouth as if he were Lord Krishna himself, preaching the Bhagvad Gita. No one really had any information except for those posters resembling a B-grade horror flick from the Ramsay brothers. 

"What makes me say that, you ask? Well, use your bloody heads for a second. They can't do shit to catch chain-snatchers and petty thieves in this village. Do you really think they are going to 'investigate' a wild animal ? What do they care about cows ? It's poor farmers like you and I who have their livelihoods to think about." With a lavish bungalow just outside the village and a retinue of SUVs at his disposal, he couldn't be considered poor by any stretch of thought, and yet, his conviction obliterated common sense. 

A wave of murmur ran in the crowd as the question hit them right where Mahanta had wanted. "Yes, go on think about it. Those dimwits are just twiddling their thumbs. I can promise you they aren't going to pay a single rupee to anyone even if they provide them with information."

"So, what should we do Mahanta bhai ?"

"We need to take care of this ourselves. Bait this brute and shoot it down. That's the only way to get rid of it once and for all."

Amidst nods of approval and unsure shakes, Mahanta's eyes darted over to Madhab parking his Trekker a few meters away from the pan-stall where they all had gathered. "Oi there Madhab. Join us. We need more young men like you."

Madhab didn't really have time for chitchat. He had taken some time off for lunch and would be plying to Bhubaneswar in a little over half an hour to catch the mid-day travellers. He hated to rush through his lunch. Judging by the unrest in the gathering, they must be talking about the big bad monster. 

Lately, that's what everyone had been talking about. Even in the city while waiting for the passengers to board the Trekker, he would overhear people saying - "They say, it comes in the dark of the night and drags animals away without a drop of blood spilt." In the eyes of the people returning back to the village, he would see a distant fear as if they were returning from the last trip of their lives. 

He had known Mahanta Sahoo all his life. After the death of his father, Mahanta had helped him find work which mostly involved collecting cow-dung from the fields and depositing it into compost pits. Some days he would work ten hours in the humid, sticky heat collecting excrement into bags and carrying it half a kilometre to the pit. He had never hated himself as much as he did then. 

Sometimes he even thought about jumping into the river and let the current take him wherever it wanted to. Mahanta treated him like his apprentice as if he were teaching him a delicate craft that no one else could. 

"No, no don't scrape it off the ground like that you moron. Dig up around it and then pick it up without disturbing its shape. You don't want to mess with the quality, you understand. This is pure stuff. How do I know ? Well, smell this..." And he would stick up a piece right up to his nose and laugh as Madhab would belch. 

At the end of the day, when Madhab would ask for his wage, Mahanta would say - "What do you need money for ? You're just a kid. Get out of here now, I don't have time. Maybe tomorrow." 

Mahanta, who had no family, was not an idiot though. He always found work and earned money wherever he could. Within ten years, he had people working for him. He didn't have to move a muscle any more. Madhab had also been one of those people until he had found a way out. A final straw to get his self-esteem back. He couldn't keep working for a pompous son of a bitch who treated every body like the dirt under his chappals. 

He grabbed the keys from his car and slowly walked towards the excited group. "You have come at an opportune moment now, Madhab. We were just talking about the thing that everyone is going mad about. As I was saying brothers, the matter is never going to be solved if left to the idle whims of the police. This is our village and we are the ones who will protect it. What do you say Madhab ? Are you in ?"

That's exactly what Madhab was afraid of. He didn't want himself to be dragged into anything that involved Mahanta Sahoo. He was a word-mincing, self-involved scum of the earth. 

"I-I don't understand. What can we do about it ? I think it's best we leave it up to the authorities."

"Oh no no no. Look at this young man, people. How many years have I known you for boy ? Twenty years ! I was your guru. I taught you the way of life and this is how you repay me ? Come on, boy. Let us be men and stamp this evil out of the world."

A collective "Yes" went around the crowd, as they stamped their feet on the ground, getting ready for war. 

"Yes ! That's the energy that we want from you all. Madhab, you can be of great use to us, you know ? We are a big group and we want to go places. You are the person who can take us places, you understand ?" The glint in his eye could have lit up the dark. 

"But where do you want to go ?" Madhab was getting impatient. The crowd was starting to get on his nerves. 

"Let's meet here tonight at midnight and I will tell you the plan. Needless to say, I do not want any one of you talking about this to anyone else who is not here right now. We do not want the police on our tails, understand ? Also, bring whatever you want to protect yourself with. I am not going to lie. Things may get dangerous. Each man for himself. Now, get on with your work as if nothing happened. Go on, get out of here!" 

Madhab saw his lips moving but nothing registered in his head. Mahanta was a powerful man. He could hurt him if he wanted to. This was getting out of hand. 

***

Rain pelted the dead highway as the Trekker sped through, its lights barely piercing through the downpour. Of all the sycophants that had gathered around Mahanta Sahoo during the day, only five had showed up including Madhab who had had no choice himself. 

Mahanta rode shotgun with Madhab while Bana Behari, Panda's son sat with Toka at the back. Bana had been Madhab's classmate when they were kids and had had a hard life himself. But instead of trying to find a means of livelihood for himself, he had become a goon on hire who mostly worked with the local politicians and the income tax department on occasion. 

Toka was a simpleton who didn't speak much. He had been in an accident many years back after which he pretty much stopped learning anything new. The doctors had said he needed brain surgery to which his mother had asked - 

"Is he dying ?". When the good doctor had shaken his head, instead of celebrating, Toka's mother had brought him back home. 

"God will take care of my boy. We don't need any surgery.", she had said.

His name had been 'Prasanta' once upon a time, but now all he could do was stare blankly at people and follow them around like a little boy if you could call him that, considering his hulking six foot four frame. So he had become Toka meaning young boy in the local slang. He followed anyone anywhere like a lost puppy. 

The last member of the retinue was Mahanta's right hand man, Biju, who had stuck with him all his life and was loyal enough to jump in front of a tiger for him. He sprawled at the back of the vehicle with his feet on the backdoor, leaving barely any sitting space for the others. 

"Can you please tell me where we are going ? I am not in a mood to drive around in the middle of the night on a wild goose chase." - Madhab looked at the man beside him in apparent disgust. 

"We are almost there. Just take a left once you see the culvert."

"But that goes right into the forest. It's not even a proper road. What do you hope to find there ?"

"Trust me. Just do what I say. It's not like you'd be going back to your big business tomorrow, is it ?". Biju cackled in the back. 

Madhab wanted to crash the Trekker right into the tree at the bend. It didn't matter if he lived or died himself. It would give him great satisfaction in his final moments, thinking that Mahanta had flown through the windshield, broken his neck as he hit the tree and laid there paralyzed until he had bled out. 

As they entered the woods, the clear, open sound of the rain turned into an all-encompassing roar as if the trees were alive and talking to each other. They stopped near what seemed to be a small clearing. The undergrowth had been cut out to make space for a platform on which stood a healthy cow who quietly chewed on the bales of hay spread out around her. 

"So, this is your plan? To lure the wolf of Niali with this cow ? What makes you think the wolf or whatever that is, even lives in this forest ?" 

"Well, let's just say I have sources who corroborate that they have discovered marks which have been made just two days ago right here. And, the last attack was at a farm at Panamali, just half a kilometer from here. I think those are enough reasons for us to scope out this area. Now, I would suggest that we cover the vehicle in leaves and hide it before our target suspects intruders in his territory. I suggest you start now. There's something I need to do." 

Madhab watched him walk over to the cows and stroke their bellies gently. The animal was visibly shaken, perhaps, due to the intermittent thunder and the unfamiliar setting of the dense foliage. She moo-ed out from time to time as she shifted around munching. 

"Are you just going to stand there or help us?", Biju said as he raked dead branches and leaves from the damp ground. Madhab's mind took him back to a ruckus in the mandi a few years back. A crowd had blocked the main highway on his way to the city. 

Curious to see what seemed like a roadside fight or a beating of a chainsnatcher, he had pushed through the crowd only to a thickset burly man kicking the life out of an old peddler. The man twisted and grabbed at his arms and legs as his perpetrator pummelled him from above. Somebody whispered that the old had fainted in the hot sun and fallen right in front of Biju's motorcycle. 

He had quietly watched as the old man's clothes came apart and he started bleeding from his mouth. No had dared to utter a word until then. Somebody had called the constable only when the old man was clinging to his last moments. What had horrified him then wasn't those injuries but Biju's maniacal laughter as he had hit the man. 

Bana had taken off his shirt and tied it around his waist. He kept disappearing into the forest and returning with giant piles of leaves in his arms, dumping them near Biju's feet. Toka just stood there looking at the whole operation, picking his nose. 

"Doesn't seem like you need much help there. Also, I don't give a crap about any of this. I am just the driver, remember?" 

"Oh you don't give a crap, do you ? Well, you surely will when you wake up to see your banged up Trekker one day. Maybe we will tie you to the front-seat, spray some kerosene and enjoy the show. How would you like that, huh ?". Madhab could see it in Biju's eyes that he wasn't joking. 

"Biju bhai, the leaves are already in place. Do you have a match ?", Bana sniggered. 

Madhab glared at Bana and took a step forward, "Try it and you'll regret the day you were born."

"What did you just say ?". Bana threw aside the bunch of leaves in his hands and approached Madhab. 

"You heard me you son of a bitch. I knew your scum of a father. He would have been really proud of you."

"That's it, I am going to break your legs and leave you here. Let's see how you'd like it."

Madhab had been in fights before. Once he lost his temper, the world would go red. There were times when he would lay in the hospital unable to recollect how he had even gotten there. He would just remember moments through flashes in his memory. A bunch of Party Workers, denying him payment saying that they were working for the nation. Him, getting out of the Trekker and arguing with them. And then seeing himself rolling in the dust as a barrage of lathis and shoes would rain down on him. Then, there was that time when a taxi-driver had bumped him from behind. The pushes had turned into punches and before he had known what was happening, the other guy had gone into a coma and he had ended up spending a week in jail. 

He had survived all of that but he wasn't sure he would survive his rage. It was bound to catch up with him someday. Maybe even today. His contorted face and clenched fists were ready to pound Bana's face when he heard the heavy, gravelly voice of Mahanta followed by an ominous click. 

He turned to see him pointing the gun at him. "There are better, less painful ways to die son. Are you sure you want to get into this right now ?"

For a moment, the lazy drizzle hitting the canopy became pronounced. There were only a few people who had the connections to procure a gun. On most occasions, even the police were shorthanded. Carrying a gun showed that you meant business and Mahanta owned every bit of that ugly business. 

It wasn't until a week after Madhab had been beaten by those Party-workers that he had come to know that they worked for Mahanta. His loathing for him had turned into a seething hatred that was hard to shake off. He knew he couldn't go to the police. They were his drinking buddies. In his world, justice was a pipe dream. And now he stood inches away from him, submissive to his will. Revenge meant something when you're in a position of power. When you're one of the meek, it became a wall where you keep banging your head into until it split open. 

While tending to his wounds, his mother had pleaded, "Let it go Madhab. He is a powerful man. God knows how many people he has killed in those fields. Anyone who dares to raise a voice against him, disappears."

"So, what do you want me to do ? Give them free rides around town ? Better yet, maybe I'll just grab a tin can and sit outside the temple. People might have pity and throw a few pennies to my face. Maybe cut off my feet and gouge my eyes out for a few grains of rice while they're at it."

"Don't talk like that son." She had tears in her eyes. "We're orphans. There's no place for people like us. The only way for us to live peacefully is to keep our heads down. Kaliya is with us."

He could never understand how, after losing everything and scorned by everyone in her family, could she still have faith ? She would spend hours staring at the picture of the wide black-eyed face of the smiling Lord Jagannath with his unfinished hands. There was glory in his incomplete form. The same couldn't be said for men. 

Weeks later Mahanta had asked him to drive him around for the election campaign. Everyone knew that the campaign was just a front. Their real strategy would be to threaten the opposing candidate's family and force him to withdraw 'voluntarily'. 

"I don't forget loyalty son. Once I win this election, great things will happen to our village. People who are close to me will be rewarded handsomely. Do you really want to keep driving that thing all your life ? If you make the right choices today, you may one day have your own travel agency. Think about the future." 

He could see the future alright as the half-naked dancer twirled around the men before settling on Mahanta's lap. She was young enough to be the man's daughter and yet he brushed his hands under her skirt as he pulled the squirming girl closer. 

The tense situation was broken by a long, deep howl that seemed to reverberate from the damp earth itself. Madhab watched Mahanta's shoulders grow tense as he paced around trying to hone into the direction of the sound. If the other man had also heard it, it wasn't his imagination. It was too feral to be a trick of the wind. But was it the monster they had been looking for ?

"Where's Toka ?", Biju gasped. "He was right there a few minutes ago."

"Did that idiot go after the animal ?", Mahanta sounded more irritated than concerned. It was time to prepare for the hunt and the village bum was the last thing he wanted to worry about. 

Biju tilted his head and glared at Bana. He understood his cue and disappeared into the forest looking for the kid. He turned towards Mahanta and said, "What should we do now boss ? This fucking rain is too dense to light a fire."

"We need to find shelter.", Madhab said. The storm was at its worst now as the deluge was interspersed with loud cackles of thunder. A forest with hundreds of trees was not the safest place to be. 

Mahanta seemed to agree as he directed Biju, "Get behind that tree and keep an eye on the cow. Take this gun. Shoot at anything that moves." He had already forgotten about Toka and Bana. 

He turned towards Madhab, "Open the car doors, we are getting in." All the animosity aside, he was glad at that suggestion. Left to his own volition, he would have chosen the trusty old Trekker. 

Biju hobbled along looking indecisive but too afraid to counter his boss's order. Men find it easy to side with powerful people, until they are thrown under the bus for larger agendas. The cow mooed at him as if commenting on the irony, "You see how it feels now ?"

The Trekker felt a lot more cramped with the humidity that had formed inside. Madhab felt Mahanta's hot breath on his neck as he wiped the windshield. Branches and leaves had stuck to glass but the clearing was still visible albeit a bit blurry from the moisture. 

"Do you think it will come to us ?"

Madhab observed that the man hadn't discarded his hunter's perspective even when they were hiding inside a tin box in the middle of a thunderstorm. 

"I don't know." He felt exasperation seeping into his voice. He could have been drifting into the sweet throes of sleep at that moment, with his rucksack primped up against his head in the back seat. Although it was cramped for an average-sized human, he had grown into it. The Trekker was his home in every sense of the word. And now his space had been invaded. 

"I should have sent you out there instead of Biju. That man has his uses unlike a smug-faced motherfucker like you." 

"Then why didn't you ?"

"Your mother didn't tell you, did she ?"

Madhab felt a hot surge searing through his chest at the mention of his mother. He turned to face the man who seemed to know something that Madhab didn't. 

"What about my mother ? What are you talking about ?"

"Remember when you spent six months in the government hospital looking like a mangled scarecrow that had been run over by a truck ? How do you think you got there ?"

That episode was a black hole in his life. He was young and brash. Give a simple village boy a cab to drive and he'd think he owned the world. When those Party Workers had dragged him out of the vehicle, he remembered thinking that something really bad was going to happen now. He might even die. When he had come to at the hospital, the pain had been excruciating but he had miraculously lived. 

"What does my mother have to do with that ?"

"Everything my boy, everything. My men, bless them, had beaten you to pulp. But they weren't just going to leave you there. They wanted to finish the job. You had gouged into one of their eyes and blinded a man after all. I can't really blame them. Well, Kaliya had other plans for you. Someone saw them dragging you into the fields and informed your mother. The poor woman came running to me and fell at my feet. Begged for her dear son's life."

Madhab remembered her mother's hollow eyes as she had sat by his bed, looking at the doctor pleadingly. 

"He will be able to walk, right ?"

The busy doctor had waived her away saying, "Ask him not to get into any more fights if you want him to live. The policeman outside wants to talk to you. If I were you, I'd say he dozed off at the steering wheel."

After getting discharged, he had focussed on getting back on his feet so that he could drive again. He was done with the chapter. Not his mother. Until her death a few years later, she had worried for him. Her last words still echoed in his head, "Remember son - you're not your father."

Mahanta sensed his reverie and chuckled, "You don't remember anything do you ? Poor bastard. I bet your mother remembered everything when she left my compound."

In a blaze, Madhab grabbed the man's collar and barked to his face with gritted teeth. "What did you do to her ?" He fought the urge to bash his head against the holding rod over the seat until bits of skull swam in the blood. 

The old man continued to smile unfazed. "My men were not used to women as old as your mother but oh well. But when the prey willingly walks into the lion's den what is he supposed to do ? She wanted you to live. I gave her what she wanted. And my men got what they wanted. See, everybody went home happy."

Madhab felt a sharp pain in his knuckles as his fist pounded against the man's face, just between his eyes. Bare-handed fist fights looked so easy in Bollywood movies when the hero sized up a gang of ruffians in a matter of minutes without feeling a tinge of ache. And yet, in real life, you felt a piercing ringing in your bones as an electric current shot up your arms telling the brain about the abuse your body was going through. As the brain cranked up the pain receptors to stop the madness, the needles stabbing into your tissues became nails. 

Madhab felt every single moment of it. But he had already crossed the point of no return. He didn't stop until Mahanta's nose had lost its shape and lay in a messy pulp with an open gash that would never heal. Blood had pooled into one of his eyes and had sealed it shut. He couldn't tell if the man had merely lost consciousness or if he was dead. He didn't care. 

As the limp body slumped down, Madhab returned to himself. It had been a while since his latent rage had completely taken over. When a loud crackle of thunder boomed overhead, he realised where he was. He also felt something else. A primal presence that wasn't there before. The shriek was snapped in the midst by a gurgle as if someone had been dunked underwater. 

Madhab would probably have dismissed it for a nightmare if his senses were not heightened from the heady dose of adrenaline. His hands throbbed like a metronome. Time slowed down as his eyes pierced through the rain-spattered windshield. A big, furry shape stood where the cow had been earlier that night. That animal was like no wolf he had ever seen. 

Its wet fur seemed to catch the lingering luminance of the intermittent lightning, creating a glowing silhouette that stood stark against the pitch blackness. Even from inside the vehicle, he felt the hot breath that emanated from its snout. In its jaws lay a limp shape, a fresh prey that had been foolhardy to wander out of its burrow. Something felt off about the shape. He found his answer when the animal snapped its jaws tighter around the neck of its hunt. The head that lolled was clearly human. Biju had found his fate. 

It suddenly hit him that he was all alone just a few feet from this creature. Bana and Toka were probably already dead. He felt his body stiffen, afraid to think what would happen if he moved. The animal dropped the body and sniffed as if it were trying to catch an unknown scent. Its fur bristled as it shook its body to expel the water. If not for its unnatural size, one could almost think of it as a mongrel running wild on the village streets, scraping off garbage from backyards. He wondered what had made it grow so big. Maybe an evolutionary trait that was born out of the unkindness it received from people. 

The wolf seemed to be growing restless. It snorted a clump of saliva into the air in a phlegmatic sneeze as its hind twisted and jerked. The movements that seemed normal for an animal were, now, exacerbated into seizure-like twitching. It let out a booming howl that was more torturous than territorial. It was in pain, and if Madhab's eyes were not deceiving him, it had grown smaller. 

The healthy sheen of its body had given way to ugly white patches. Its howl was now a tired yelp as it rolled and stretched trying to get rid of the sickness that was taking over. Or was it being dispelled ? Its form felt increasingly familiar now. Broad shoulders with a head of short, straight hair. A tall, heavy body with a slight paunch. Madhab gasped as realisation struck home. 

Toka, the wolf of Niali, sat on the forest floor wailing his heart out like an overgrown child. 

***

 

Calling it the strangest night of his life would have been the understatement of the century. A week had gone by since the 'incident', if you could call it that. It was 6 am and the Trekker was already packed with everyday commuters to Bhubaneswar, a motley crowd comprising of vegetable sellers, poultry farmers, street vendors, and the occasional priest travelling to preside over a wedding. 

As Madhab filled the empty cola bottle at the temple's drinking water tap, he watched Toka who helped some of the vendors put their wares on the Trekker's baggage crate at the top. It was hard to grasp how normal he looked in the daylight, picking his nose from time to time and smiling sheepishly when someone patted his back. 

The kid was his responsibility now. Now that he knew his secret, he didn't really have a choice. He still had no idea how we would deal with him during the next full moon cycle but he would figure something out. Probably visit the city library while he was at it. For now, he had found his purpose. Protect him for as long as he could and try to find how he got this way. There had to be similar cases of cattle mutilations spread throughout the country that no news agency had reported. 

The love-hate relationship with his village had changed overnight as if it had been through purgatory and had been cleansed off of its dark blemishes . Despite its innate social flaws, it was made up of simple, hard-working people who were trying to make a living despite everything being against them. The government didn't care, nor did the local panchayat. They were the quintessential second-class citizens, deemed to live below their 'benevolent' bureaucratic gaze. 

While the police hadn't closed the investigation on Mahanta and Biju's deaths yet, the word on the street was clear - they had tried to take on the wolf and had been punished for being foolhardy. The enormous paw-prints strongly supported that theory. They had also found Bana's mangled corpse, just outside the village, his face in a state of permanent shock. 

Once Madhab had calmed Toka down after the painful ordeal he had to go through, the boy had helped him clean up the blood from the backseat. Before the break of dawn, the Trekker had been parked at its usual spot. 

Every time someone asked him what had happened to Mahanta and his goons, he would shrug and say - 

"God knows it was all very stupid. They wanted me to go with them but I said, 'Do what you want, I need to sleep before my trip to the city.' I was scared shitless to be honest. So, I left them on the highway and came back with Toka. He was scared too, poor kid. Now that we know how they were found, we were right weren't we ?"

To that, the villagers would nod in agreement and look up at the temple flag thanking the Lord Jagannath for saving their lives. They still discussed in hushed tones if the wolf was still out there hunting in the dark of night, but the posters had changed in the village - from a vicious, salivating monster, to that of a calm, benevolent saviour; a new god to be worshipped.

 

Fin. 

 


Submitted: May 24, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Sidiosyncratic. All rights reserved.

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