There was never a summer like yesterday. Yesterday, where the sun refused to set, where the night refused to lull people to sleep; yesterday, where the hoots of the owl dissipated among the crackling of victorious boys, dancing to the rhythm of victory, of the night humid and contagious, where the moon waited patiently behind the thick curtain of cloud, dreaming and sleeping in people’s stead. Yesterday, where the wait was over and the celebration began only to end a few hours later. And then they haggardly went to sleep, the boys of Rome, never to wake up again. In the early morning hours where the sun just peeked behind the tall trees that were two hundred years old, where the river just woke up to disturb the sound of silence, the boys of Rome went to sleep never to wake up again. Death came like a boring, middle-aged man, banal and always busy. Like the invisible clerk in the office. He wore spectacles, had big ears that protruded like a pig’s. His lips were thin, dark and discoloured due to tobacco tar from his cigarettes over the years. He sat calmly in Riki’s shop while we watched the final Euro Cup match between Italy and England. And we all were rooting for Italy, wanting that ludicrous nation to defeat a country that once ruled us. Well, not all of us. Two boys, Adi and Miat placed a bet on Italy, so there’s a selfishness in their support. It was us, those who stood nothing to gain and nothing to lose except our sense of joy, who were the real heroes, the real supporters. The bettors were not us. We were not driven by profit; they were. We danced for the team; they danced for their pockets; we lost sleep because we wanted to revel in the rhythm of the game that’s both enthralling and full of mysterious maladies of anticipation; they lost sleep because they wanted to revel in the possibilities of filling their parched pockets and engaged in that enchanting game of speculation and trade. There were two types of people in the shop divided by our interests, united by our shared goal: winning. There was Riki, the owner of the shabby shop and there was the invisible spectacled man.
The moment the match was won by Italy, the boys of Rome marched outside, shouting and screaming; they immediately seized Miat and tossed him several times in the air. The sounds were deafening and the whole village woke up to that sound of victory, of celebration that rained down like a summer tempest. There was laughter, celebratory chanting, and smiles of orgasmic satisfaction. We all revelled in the climatic noises of sweet vengeance, for Italy had done the job that us Indians wouldn’t. Beating England in Cricket doesn’t count. No one is excited about that mind-numbing game that people dared to call a sport. There was Zucha river dancing (and he didn’t know how to); there was Emon (waving his hands like a prostitute); there was Heracle staring blankly at his phone; none of the joyous commotions could distract him from his game. Why bother celebrating a match where others were playing when he had his own match going on? So he sat there, at the bottom step leading to the shop without bothering to even glance at the victorious boys. They touched his head, rumpled his hair, pulled his shirt. They even took off their shirts and danced in front of him. He was so attached to his game that none of that seemed to bother him. Suddenly the village rongbahchnong (the village headman) appeared out of nowhere.
“What are these noises all about?” he asked, shouting at us. It was almost four in the morning, so we could understand his irk.
“Go to your bed now,” he shouted, “the match is over. And you are disturbing people. If I hear you shouting again…” he said as a warning and swiftly stormed away without completing his sentence. We knew that it was morning already and as his back faded into the darkness, Mi smiled like a mischievous child who had been caught. His brother was angry.
“Fucking old man. It’s only a once-in-a-four-year experience. Old people don’t understand us.” We decided to leave and dispersed quietly to our houses. Quietly, however, was an understatement for we continued to celebrate even as we departed although in a much-tempered tone. We did this as we weren’t ready to let go of the blanketed enthusiasm of victory which, in that moment, had taken hold of us. As one of us slowly faded away into the shadow of the morning clouds, we made our way into our beds, tasting peace and quiet despite the cacophony of noises still ringing in our ears. There was something still about those early morning hours, something that seemed like nothing moved except the shadow of the morning clouds as they kept blocking the young sun from paring through their violated bodies. The houses stood still as they always do. There’s nothing unusual about their stillness. But they looked sad. I stood at my balcony and glanced south to see a myriad of houses that emanated sadness from them. I used the term sadness because I couldn’t describe the feeling that they conjured when I looked at them on that morning hour, at 4:17 precisely, fifteen minutes before the clouds would give way to the orange sun. I stood there and I thought I saw a spectacled man going quietly into one of the houses that bore the resemblance of an agonizing child over a toothache. There was something agonizing in the appearance of that house that morning. I was perplexed by the sudden ominous familiarity of the houses but it was 4:17 and I was as sleepy as a sloth and quietly entered my room. I closed the curtain, left the windows open, and gently tucked into my bed, smiling at the sense of triumph over a haggard day, and closed my eyes.
By ten-fifteen, cars rumbling, and screams started to mingle in my numb ears. My tired eyes slowly opened to the commotion inside my house and outside. I could barely make out what the noises were all about. It seems today was really a day of commotion. I plugged the earplugs in and put my eye mask on, trying to prevent sounds and light from disturbing my sleep. They were enough though. While there was barely any noise or light filtered through the protective gears, a sign of worry and the sudden instinct that something of grave consequence had happened, did manage to filter to my heart. I removed my earplugs and my mask and put on my shorts and went downstairs. I saw my mom and my sister standing by the door, and from the manner in which they stood or gazed at the vast openness of the outside, I just knew that something sinister had happened. They gazed at the road that connected this place to the outside world. I can still hear screams- fearful and agonizing screams of women and the sound of cars going away.
“What happened?” I enquired.
“We don’t know yet”, said my sister, “all of them, those who watched the game at Riki’s shop were found covered in blood. Blood splurging from their mouth and nose.”
“Oh, my God!!” I shouted, “ are they dead?” I said as I raised my voice in disbelief.
“I don’t know”, said my sister as I rushed ahead to the road to have a glimpse of the cars that carried the bodies of my friends to the hospital. But the cars were gone. I stood there staring into eerie blankness only to be greeted by the stench of car exhaust. I looked around at the sinister road while still trying to piece together what had happened, still trying to paint a picture for my wandering mind. Questions floated in my mind like flood debris that sprang from every nook and corner of their unreachable caverns, brought to the surface by the furious water. I can ask about how, why, what, where? I stood there with my hands resting on my hip not yet realising how much I will miss those shirtless, spirited boys that I called my friends. I slowly turned back and went home, ready to find answers to my questions. As I walked away I felt the sudden weight of the event resting heavily on my chest. But the first question that came to my mind was : who are they? The ones that left in cars on that road.
“Everyone”, said my sister as she wiped away tear with the end of her diachukiong, “ the entire group who watched the game last night. All of them”.
I simply stared at her in disbelief. “How did it happen?” I asked. She simply shook her head implying that she didn’t know.
“We will have to wait for the test report”, she said. And so we waited from eleven to one in the afternoon to ascertain the cause of such a tragedy. Few minutes after one, we received information, not about the test report but that one of the boys had died. And after that, it was just one information after another- information that only raised the body count; information that ended with the arrival of the bodies one after another through that same road that leads to the outside of the village arriving only in lifeless form, for when they left the village in the morning, they would never return alive. Twelve bodies in total. Twelve young souls snatched away at the prime of their life.
A group of villagers gathered outside Riki’s shop. They were agitated and restless. One of them had a can of kerosene by his side. The others were just there waiting for Riki to come out. But he wouldn’t. They shouted at him.
“Come out, you fool. You know damn well we’re going to burn this shop. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that we won't just because you are inside. We might just as well torch it now with you inside it”, one of the old men said.
“Look! We really like you as a person. But this is not personal”, one of them said.
“You know it’s not me who poisoned your kids. Why would I ever do that? They were my friends and I love them and cherish their company”.
“We know that'', said the village rongbahchnong, “that’s why we are not holding you guilty of it. Only your shop is. Your shop killed these boys and we need to rid ourselves of this evil.”
“There is nothing wrong with my shop!” he protested.
“It inherited your clan’s Krah,” shouted the villagers. “My family doesn’t have Krah”, he protested.
“Of course, you’d say that. Of course, you’d proclaim the innocence of your clan and your shop. But twelve people were dead after eating from your shop. That is proof enough of the evil that resides in your family and in your shop”, said one of the villagers.
“Yeah”, the villagers agreed in unison.
“So get your ass out and let us cleanse this place”, they said.
“Do what you want but I will not move out of my shop”, protested Riki.
“Drag him out”, said one of the men who had gathered there.
“Yeah! Drag him out”, said another, and before long a group of five men had managed to pull out the struggling and screaming Riki out of the shop.
“Don’t!” he shouted, as the mob sprayed kerosene at his shop, “please don’t” he pleaded, crying, “this is my only source of livelihood. Please have some heart”, he pleaded tearfully but to no avail. It’s no use appealing to the hearts that had been hardened by a tragedy so grave that only ignorance can soothe and comfort them. No logic, no reason can overcome the brokenness of a human heart for in those moments it throws itself up to the thick blanket of untruth and gets itself entangled in the mesh of comfortable untruths. And this situation where twelve boys ended up dead after eating egg rolls pointed towards the big untruth, the one that had always been the whispered of the village: that Riki and his clan had what they term as Krah. It is a mystical poison, invisible, lingering on the nails of those who have it and so the food that is prepared by such nails is contaminated with this mystical poison, and those who ingest such food will die. The death only confirmed their worst suspicions and maybe at that moment, they were proud of being right, even if it cost the death of twelve boys. “I told you so”, is an orgasmic moment where you look for a chance to be the prophet to convert people into your faith and hope that, along with you, they will be fanatical to the cause; and in this the people who believed that Riki was responsible for the Krah, walked to the shop, iron rod and torches in their hands, with their head, held high as their belief had been confirmed. They threw the flaming torch inside the shop which gently landed on the wooden table and slowly but surely, the flame kept on licking the inside of the shop, while Riki screamed as the flame crackled like sordid laughs.
Riki’s sister-in-law went to the forest foraging for wild mushrooms. Though she knew it wasn’t mushroom season, she heard from her neighbour that there were plenty of mushrooms in the forest. So the next day, she collected her tools and headed to the forest. She was disappointed, however, because there weren’t many mushrooms as told by her neighbour. Not to waste her day, she plucked the few remaining and headed back home. Upon reaching home, she started cleaning them when Riki saw her.
“These are all you could get?” he asked her, “ I thought there were plenty of mushrooms.”
“That's what I thought too,” she said, “ it turned out someone else got there first.”
“Won’t be enough for all of us”, he replied.
“Yes, but it’s a waste to throw them away”, she said. “You know it’s better if I use them to stuff my eggrolls,” he said.
“Yes. That would be better. I’ll clean them for you and you cook them alright”, she said.
“Of course”, he said and went away.
That night as the match played on and as the boys were cheering loudly, Riki carefully stuffed the mushrooms along with spring onions, beans, parsley, and egg inside the rolled bread that he wrapped. Then he deep-fried them to golden crispy brown before taking them out to serve the boys.
“Rolls are ready!” he shouted, notifying the boys. One of them went to the kitchen to collect the items and returned to the dining room.
“The rolls look very special today,” said one of them as he carefully examined the golden crust of the rolls.
“Yes, they are. Smells so good too. Very earthy” said another and immediately took a deep bite. “Delicious”, he said as his mouth moved to the symphony of flavours that hit him subtly but surely.
One by one they took their turn in taking the rolls and gobbled them up. No one can deny the fact that the rolls were some of the best that they ever took. After eating, they turned back their attention to the match for Italy had scored an equalizer in the final minutes of the match. The pandemonium that ensued was maddening. Their arms raised in the air, their shirts off, their faces coloured with Italian flags, the boys threw their hearts and souls in the fleeting moment of that time, barely containing their joy and cheers. In that moment, they were united with Rome and with every supporter of Italy throughout the world. The boundaries of nation dissolved in that joyous atmosphere where one can show such care and devotion to a country that one knows little of; and this splendid strangeness brought them closer to the world and a few hours later to the heaven that they so aspire. They left the world with the light of the sun, yet unaware of it, entombed by the darkness of sleep and wrapped in a sheet of satisfaction and celebration.
Riki screamed and wailed as the flame engulfed his shop; the agonizing parents screamed at the arriving dead bodies; the Italian fans screamed outside Wembley as they got beaten up by the losing team. Everyone screamed that day except the boys of Rome who quietly went away into the night.
Lede E Miki Pohshna is a writer based in Sohkha, Meghalaya. Currently, he is pursuing PhD North Eastern Hill University.