‘It stinks…’ the voices whispered in Aryan’s ear. ‘I can’t breathe’ a voice choked in his throat, Aryan bolted upright in his bed, trying hard to catch his own breath. It was way before sunrise, the sky outside his window was covered in a thick carpet of dark clouds and the carpet was leaking. It wasn’t a strong rain, the sky wasn’t weeping and shouting at the earth, the sky was murmuring obscenities and threats. And it had been going on all night long. And that meant the ground was overflowing with the rainwater and that meant the drainage was clogged.
Aryan stood up and took a step towards his window. He could smell it even before he could see it. The scent of humanity at the end of the day, the scent of sweat and piss and shit all mingled with the earth and the rain, the scent of what we all will finally become. He reached the window and looked out into the street that led into his colony, at the very beginning of the colony like a dot of Kajal placed to protect against the evil eye was the manhole. Aryan knew precious little about sewers and manholes, he was not required to, in fact, his ignorance was to be lauded. And so the manhole stayed a strange beast to him. He knew only that it sealed away all the sewage that their esteemed colony produced every day. And it did this silently, quietly all year long.
Except during the monsoon. Except on days like today when the beast came to life. He could see the manhole cover, water was not entering it anymore. Instead, it was frothing out of it…yellow putrid, adding its own river to the rainwater, a river of spent humanity. The manhole cover quivered, it trembled and it growled. It moaned and groaned in a language Aryan couldn’t understand. What did it want? Was it hungry, did it want to eat? Or was it sick and wanted to vomit? Did it want a sacrifice or did it want redemption? Aryan stared at the strange mouth as it continued its strange babbling.
Aryan knew he should go on with his day, maybe go back to sleep or go watch something on television. But he couldn’t move away from the window. The stench had stabbed him through his head and it held him there. He watched the sludge gurgle out of the manhole cover as the beast continued its incomprehensible soliloquy. But between the patter of the secretive rain and the gargling of the manhole monster there were other voices…the voices that had woken him up, the voices of his dream, “it stinks” the voices said, “I can’t breathe…air…I need air…” it’s filling my lungs, I need air..”
“I need air Aryan repeated, I can’t breathe.
Aryan tried to push away from the window. He knew someone would take care of it. Someone always did. The issue had been brought up in the last colony meeting. Everyone had agreed that something needed to be done. The manager would do something about it. Last year too it had gotten blocked. And that man, what was his name again, Malli, Malli had taken care of it. But Malli had gone missing last year, probably had too much to drink and wandered off somewhere. That is why it was taking longer to fix the problem this year. Someone needed to take Malli’s place. Someone needed to remove whatever way choking this monster, Aryan thought as he saw the manhole cover groan and gargle again.
“What keeps clogging you every year?” Aryan wondered.
“I can’t breathe, I need air…” the voices replied.
Aryan found himself walking out if his house, umbrella raised against the silent whispers of the rain. What did he think he was going to do? He just wanted to take a better look at the manhole. Hear what it was saying. It was still dark outside and the stink grated against his skin, it peeled at him as he passed through it. The monster seemed to be aware of his presence. It gurgled and groaned more as he stepped closer to it. The manhole cover threatened to fly off, “air…I need air…” the voices shouted at him.
That was when he noticed the boy standing in the shadow of one of the pillars of the colony. He was dark enough to blend into the shadow and thin enough that his head looked like balloon pinned to his dark shirt. He seemed to be staring at the manhole too and muttering under his breath. Aryan noticed that he had covered his nose with a handkerchief without realizing it, but the boy seemed oblivious to the stench. He had seen the boy around before, he lived in one of the huts in the slum nearby. He gestured to the boy and the boy came closer to him, “I can breathe,” the boy said, “I need air…”
Aryan gestured for the boy to stop. “What are you doing here?”
“I can’t sleep…,” the boy said, “it stinks…” he pointed at the manhole.
“Yes…we will get it cleared soon…” Aryan said.
“How…” the boy asked still staring at the gargling beast.
“I dunno, we will get that Malli fellow to come around and….and take care of it …”
The boy looked at Aryan, “Malli isn’t coming back…”
The groaning became intense at this. A fresh wave of yellow water seeped out of the manhole and the stench promised to extinguish all memory.
“Air, I need air…” the voices screamed in their heads.
“It has been days…I can’t sleep. It won’t let me sleep. They won’t let me sleep.” The boy said. He took a step towards the manhole.
“What are you doing?” Aryan said.
The boy looked at him with eyes that had irises white as white porcelain, “taking care of it…”
He walked to the manhole, standing right in the river of sludge. Letting it get used to his frail body as he got used to its strength. He bent down to grasp the manhole cover by its teeth, the monster growled at him and spat at his hands. He tugged harder at the cover, forcing the monster to widen its jaws. He managed to unhinge the cover and the manhole let out a long scream of sewage and stink.
The boy looked at Aryan as he began to take deep breaths.
“Don’t, it’s not safe,” Aryan said as the monster continued to growl.
“It was never safe, not for me…” the boy said he took a final deep breath and jumped into the monster’s mouth. He looked frail as he went deeper into the sludge, like a building collapsing in a flood. His head floated on the top for a moment as he seemed to argue with the beast and then it was gone.
Aryan waited, wondering if the boy would ever come back. He finally took a step back towards his house. The manhole began to froth and foam. The boys head emerged out of it covered in thick layer of the spent humanity. He held onto the sides of the manhole, steadying himself against the current. Then he pulled out something from the depths and threw it on the ground beside the manhole, he took a deep breath and sank again. Aryan stared at the thing, it looked like a log, so that is what had been clogging the sewage. He took a step towards it to kick it but stopped when he saw the fingers.
The boys head appeared again, and this time he threw out a foot. He disappeared again, and returned with another hand and another foot, until a whole body was being assembled beside the manhole, a putrid decaying jigsaw puzzle. The boy’s head reappeared one last time, this time he held a head by its hair between his teeth.
He spat the head onto the ground and pulled himself out of the manhole. Aryan looked at the head, Malli gave him a lipless smile as sludge oozed out of his eye sockets. “Air…” Malli whispered, “I need air…” and seemed to take a deep breath as his mouth fell open.
The boy closed the manhole cover, the monster seemed satiated, it purred now with the sewage flowing freely in it.
The boy got a gunny bag cover, he began to put Malli into the bag like he was a bundle of logs. When he was done he closed the gunny bag and threw it over his thin shoulders.
“What will you do with him?” Aryan couldn’t help himself.
“ Take him home, mom has been waiting for him, and we need firewood.”
The boy made to move towards the street. He turned to stare at the manhole again, “is it over?” Aryan asked.
“For now…the boy said, “ it will go hungry again.
The boy turned away and dragged his father home.
Aryan was back in his room, he shivered even in its warmth. He stared at the manhole cover, sure it would growl again. But the sun rose soon, the rain stopped and the sunlight evaporated the memory of the event just like it dispersed the stench from the sewage.