The day before my flight home, my Tarot deck arrives. It’s a surprise; I forgot I’d ordered it. If I hadn’t delayed leaving, I’d have missed it. The box is turquoise with finely curled white writing above the upper half of a woman’s face. Her hair is curled into two loose buns, with a crescent moon nestled between them like horns. The High Priestess.
A little shrine for Goddess Durga sits at the back of my deep, narrow desk. In front of her is a bowl of dried fruit, a stick of sandalwood incense, a candle, and a glass bowl of water. Tav stops at the door and peers into the dimly lit room, looking confused.
“What’s with all the religion all of a sudden?”
“Finding my intuition,” I reply.
All of a sudden. As though it’s popped out of the ground, at random. I was creating my own Hinduism long before I knew them, but my obligation to explain myself died with our relationship. I take a breath, clear my mind, and draw three cards, resisting the temptation to read the guidebook. My interpretation is valid, I remind myself. Remember how to see what I see.
Judgement. Knight of swords. Queen of swords.
I stare at them. It’s almost painful to look without instruction on what I should see. I feel as though I’m floating in the sea at night. There are so many meanings. Which is right?
I close my eyes, pick up the cards, and shuffle again.
It’s been a dizzying month since my flight, a blurring array of other peoples’ sofas, train rides with overstuffed bags, late nights drinking with people I thought I’d never see again, and hurried texts to find out who had space for me next. No one would kick me out, but even the most well-meaning friend can get tired of me taking up their resources. After months of wanting nothing but my family, I’m desperate not to risk losing them again over something so minor.
So, today I present to the City Council as homeless. It’s the second time this week I’ve done so; I wonder if it’s intentionally discouraging. It’s a huge room. “Housing Options” occupies the half of the ground floor to the left of the door. The waiting area’s two rows of curved orange plastic seats, with a little TV mounted above them. Only six chairs remain. In the six feet of distance between each of them, two brackets are still mounted to the long frame, as though even the seats are waiting for things to go back to normal.
About twenty feet behind the seats is the office, with six desks arranged in rows. Each has a Plexiglass screen attached to the front. A lady calls me forward, but next to the obnoxious phone-voices of the two men at desks off to one side, who seem to be the council switchboard, I have to shout to make myself heard. When I’m asked to repeat why exactly I’m asking for housing help—for the fourth time in two days—I give up and ask for a private room. I recite the story verbatim. It’s true, but after so many repetitions it’s begun to feel rehearsed.
I’m returned to the seating area for a couple of hours. The TV is set to the Olympic women’s running.
“She’s tall, elegant, in scintillating form-“ drools the commentator. I wonder who decided he was a good choice. I’m grateful that the other commentator seems to agree with me; she cuts in to talk at length about the runners’ athletic careers.
At last I’m beckoned to another desk. A middle aged man with a stack of papers asks me a list of questions. I answer them. It’s the third time I’ve run through this particular list. The man is kind , though, and reassures me they’ve found a place. It’s a B&B in one of the rougher parts of town, but it’s ground floor with a shower and a fridge. I thank them and I’m given a number to call to arrange check-in. I’m exhausted, but excited at the prospect of having a proper bed. My bed.
The B&B is nice enough. A bit shabby round the corners but it’s got a TV, a desk, a fridge, and a double bed. Private bathroom, too. There’s even a little biome jar, looking a bit malnourished. I move it from its shadowed corner to the nightstand next to the window, and notice four dark, smeared finger marks in the corner near to the ceiling.
The manager, John, is nice enough. He keeps calling me “young lady” or “madam”, which is incorrect but seems well-intentioned. The room’s in a corridor with its own locked external door, separate from everyone else. The only other room in it is his; he gives me the key and tells me a locksmith will be along to change my lock.
“I see you’re a smoker, young lady!” He exclaims, as he spots me with a cigarette. He lowers his voice. “That smoke alarm’s switched off, if you’d rather not go outside, you can smoke in your room out the window—I does. Specially at night. It can get really dodgy ‘round here.”
I’ve been in my new room for about a week. There’s a nagging feeling of withdrawal in the pit of my belly, growing as time goes on. I’ve been chain smoking, but it seems immediately after I snub out each one the gnawing in my stomach resumes and I roll another. I try caffeine, weed, tramadol, and food. Nothing seems to work, so I set up my tablet in front of the window, binge Z Nation, and smoke until my eyes won’t stay open.
When it is time for bed, I can’t shake the sense I’m being watched. The room is quiet and empty, the window obscured by thick drapes as well as a lace curtain. The feeling comes from my left, next to the darkest corner of the room. I fall asleep watching this corner, my bedside light on. Eventually, I buy a string of lights and arrange them over my headboard. The gentle glow helps, but the unease in the pit of my stomach does not lift.
Two days later, the feeling is still there. I fall asleep over and over staring at the same patch of air, terrified and unsure of why; seconds later I wrench my eyes open, convinced I am being watched, but nothing is there. Eventually the dawn light makes my curtains glow, and I fall asleep to the sound of footfall from the rooms above me.
When I wake up, I half-consciously sidestep around the area. I tell myself it’s all in my head, and force myself to step through it; when I do there’s a horrible restless feeling in my limbs, as though I’ve intruded on someone’s personal space. At night the cycle of sleeping and waking worsens. I feel dark silhouettes in the corners of my eyes, flickers in my peripheral vision. I’m jumpy, and the chain smoking has worsened. When I leave and return it’s still there. If I lose track of my thoughts I’m struck by a sudden terror as an inhuman shadow crawls across my vision.
I don’t want to think of myself as someone who believes in whatever it is I’m experiencing, but I can’t convince myself I’m not experiencing it. I’m worn down. I remember stories of people helping trapped souls to cross over. Is that what this is? I steel myself. Any solution is a solution. I don’t have the money nor the desire to pay for “psychic help”. Whatever has to be done, I will have to do it.
I light two candles. One for me, and one for…whatever this is. I speak, simultaneously creeped out by and self conscious of the rasping of my whisper. If I speak at full volume, I risk my neighbours thinking I’m insane.
“I see-I feel you,” I begin. “I know you are there. I know you might be afraid. You can trust me.” I feel a flutter in the air and try to let myself believe. “I want to help,” I say. “Let me help you. Tell me what you need.” An idea strikes me, and I turn over a tarot card.
Temperance. A blending of energies? I feel the sudden urge to smoke. I look at the patch of air, and it feels empty. “Just one,” I say. “Just one cigarette, and then you will leave.”.
I finish the cigarette, anxiously. “I am going to sleep,” I say, and snuff out both candles. “Please leave, now.” I still feel as though it is there. I am in control, I tell myself. I lie down to sleep, and a sensation like a hand creeps across my stomach. The presence is no longer standing in the room; it’s in my bed. I sit bolt upright and turn on the light.
I do a quick Google for ‘how to banish a ghost’, feeling ridiculous, and come back to the process armed with information. I relight both candles.
“I see you,” I say again. “I feel you there. I understand you might be scared. But you are dead-” a misstep-lurch in my stomach; quivering shock and nausea, “-you are dead, and this is my space”.
I call the name of Durga, and of a cousin who died: Amisha. “It is safe to cross into the next life,” I whisper. “You must cross. They are here to guide you”. I feel the presence move to the window. I jump; a crawling sensation in my ear comes with a voice on the edge of hearing, twisted, hissing.
“I’m not amissshaaaa….” my back is to the wall. But it seems to be gone. Probably it was in my head, an intrusive thought, I tell myself. I take my medication, and lie down to sleep. But I leave the light on.
The next morning, I tell myself it’s gone. The day is bright. I spend it writing, watching TV, crocheting. I delay sleeping, trying not to let my eyes move to that one empty patch of air. It’s not there, I tell myself. I’m just anxious. It’s done, resolved. I am wrong.
I take an extra dose of anxiety medication before I sleep. But the feeling is still there, the feeling of being watched. Am I imagining that it’s angry? I am afraid to shut my eyes. Should I leave? Pack a bag and run? My thoughts buzz. Despite the drugs, my heart hammers against my ribs and I swear in the darkness I can see a twisted face, hovering in the room with empty eyes—
“Enough!” I whisper-shout. “Enough. This is my space,” I light both candles. “You can’t be here”. I imagine my will expanding to every dark corner of the room, imagine it filling every crevice. “This room is mine. You can cross over or you can go somewhere else, but you can not be here.” I imagine a bright light in my chest, growing until it illuminates every corner of this room. I imagine the walls shaking with the force of my signal that this space is mine. I imagine this presence, this spirit, fleeing. If I can’t help it to leave, I can protect this room against it.
I remember Hamsa, the protective hand. I grab a notebook, draw the shape, and fill it with the five elements: fire, air, space, earth and water. On the palm is an eye, its pupil a sun, and below it a crescent moon. Finished, I place it opposite the door. I move my bedside lamp to face the corner, and light a small fragrant candle on top of the radiator mantle. Without the main light, the walls seem to glow.
I recite an old mantra from the back of my memory, learned in childhood. Protection was exactly what it was for. Protect me, I think as I repeat it seven times for strength. Let me protect this space. This space is mine.
The next night, I sleep well. Stubbornly well. Mine, I think as I fall asleep. This space is mine. The Hamsa on the wall watches kindly.
Outside, men argue in bellows and sirens wail. A woman pounds on a door, in terror; glass breaks. A car’s deep roar shakes the ground, rising like thunder. But inside this room, I am safe.
Arsha Adarsh is a chronically ill, Desi poet and writer from the UK who’s fallen in love with The Oregon sky. They find healing in the weird and the unexpected. Their work’s been published by Ang(st), Ayaskala, The Daily Drunk, Ghost Heart, Analogies & Allegories, and others. They’re a BOTN 2020 nominee. Find out more at https://aadarsh.ink, or follow them on Twitter @arsha_writes or Mastodon @firstname.lastname@example.org. They’d love to hear from you!