It took me more than two days to arrive at the truth of the whole matter. I could not ask my mother since she would never speak to me about such things, father always arrived late from work and by then I am already tucked in bed and so the only person I could turn to was our house servant, Raman; he was of indefinable age, grey-haired with thick growth of wiry hair near his ears that always made me believe that most of the words that he heard were often lost in that labyrinth. And yet Raman would tell me the truth. Somehow, I knew it….

A few days ago, I was returning home from my game of cricket, that day I took a short, dusty path that saved me the time of walking via the main road.

‘Did you see the six that I hit today from Raju’s ball?’ I declared proudly. Raman who would always pester me with too many questions about my exploits did not reply and looked rather too pre-occupied.

‘Raman, are you listening?’ I spoke a little louder. He then put a finger to my lips saying, ‘Shhh! Do you hear that sound?’ What was he saying or was he just pretending in a way trying to pull a prank on me? I looked deep into his eyes and wanted him to tell me what it was. Was it something ominous?. Then I heard footsteps, light and fast, moving towards me. I could not quite make out from where the sound was coming.

‘Raman, is someone following us?’ but before Raman could gather his thoughts to answer me, a quiet rumble shook the ground beneath my feet, hundreds of dry autumn leaves gathered at my feet and a very foul smell started to rise up from the debris and it began to envelop me as it were something dead and decomposed was moving near about. I stopped and suddenly so did all that commotion of footsteps. Raman walked on oblivious of the fact that I had let him pass by. I looked back, I saw a strange, long shadow, meandering at a fast pace behind me, though I saw nothing that could have cast such a shadow on that lonely patch. I knew something was wrong! A few minutes ticked by, nothing happened, I tried to tell myself that perhaps, it was a mere trick of my thoughts.

I hurried back home almost running at a quick pace, breathless by the time I reached the doorstep. Mother looked at me alarmed and confused at the same time, she said - ‘It seems as if you have just seen a ghost. You look so pale’ I knew I had to blurt out everything to her and yet I did not. I would not scare her with the details of a strange happening that I could not quite clearly explain. I went to my room, sat down on the bed and started thinking. Raman came in, sat down on the floor and absentmindedly began to pull my shoes off my feet. Once, twice, no, the shoes would not come off.. He pulled again.

“you are hurting me!” I cried out in pain.

‘Your shoes are stuck’ Raman said gasping,

A strange look of fear came into his eyes.

He added - ‘I cannot pull them out’.

Suddenly, for god knows why, I panicked; I could feel the weight of some other feet on mine. Raman began to utter a prayer-slowly the shoes fell off as it were someone willed it so. It surprised me that Raman knew a prayer strong enough to ward off an evil thing. I could see for the first time how a prayer can come to save me from the unknown. I thanked Raman and tried to go to sleep.

However that night I slept rather fitfully while a strange shadow went on skirting around me though I tried to shoo it away with a quick wave of my hand and every time I thought I was able to grasp it, the shadow somehow slipped out of my hand. This game of deception went on until it truly exhausted me and I slithered down like a heap in one corner of my bed.

Next evening, I dared myself to take that same lonely path once again, this time the trees were silent and unmoving as it were they did not want to be part of that whole charade, however they were still quite dark and ominous , a secret seemed to be lurking in between their thick green leaves.

I shuddered and said to myself ‘I am such a fool, do I think that whatever troubled me last evening will let me go away easily?” I decided to find that out. I took strength from the only fact that Raman was beside me and he had his strange prayer to shelter me. And yet, unlike last evening, I was a little wary and cautious and then I began to count the minutes one by one on the tip of my fingers and waited for that long dark shadow to arrive.

A few minutes ticked by, nothing happened. I told myself that it was perhaps a mere awkward feeling. Raman, I could see looked back several times with a sheepish grin on his lips, as it were, he too was waiting for someone today though until then I had told him nothing about the strange shadow of last evening.

I thought I would say something in a way to break the long, interminable silence and also to let the sound of my words announce to who ever was lurking around me that I was there to face it.

“Do you believe in ghosts, Raman?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Why do you say so? Have you ever seen one?”

Raman stole a surreptitious glance behind him and with a strange twinkle in his eyes added “Well, one is just behind us, I see it very clearly.”

A shiver ran up the whole length of my spine before he could finish that sentence. I said nothing. I would not dare to look back.

Raman could add anything more either because just then a long dark shadow descended from the top of a tall peepal tree or because it crouched into a thick grotesque bundle at our feet. It was a shapeless creature that began a long insensible harangue in a coarse rasping voice to explain why it had come to face me. I wasn’t listening because this time I had come prepared: I had read in one of the scriptures that the best way to ward off any evil thing is to throw a handful of mustard seeds and red dry chilies in the air. I had my pockets full of those things to fight against this ominous thing. I quickly put my hand inside my pocket and threw a fistful of seeds and chilies at it. The creature then let out a sharp shrill cry that threatened the evening sky.

I ran without looking where or how I ran, I trusted my feet would take me some where else. A strange trepidation surrounded me as I fell headlong at our doorstep. Mother quickly took me inside and shook me with a barrage of questions “What’s the matter with you? This is the second time you are looking so strange and shaken!”

I could tell her nothing.

She put another question at me “Where is Raman?”

I replied between a croak and a whimper “I left him behind with the ghost.’

A strange frown came upon her forehead. I knew she had every reason to disbelieve me. I had nothing to explain that strange happening in that lonely lane.

Someone then knocked twice on the door. A gentleman wearing a long white coat came in and said – “I have lost my way here, would you show me the way to street number 14?”

Mother and I exchanged glances.

She answered “ there is no street named after that number, may be you are mistaken.” The gentleman nodded and went out.

A little later, Raman arrived, his shirtfront was torn in shreds and his hands and face were bruised and bleeding, he looked ghastly, he had his eyes shut in a queer kind of way; it seemed to say that he had seen enough of a strange thing for his lifetime. What could have happened to him? I too had too many questions for him though Raman was hardly in a state to explain anything.

An hour later, he opened his eyes and began to say in a feeble voice “ I finally met him, he was very fierce and evil like the devil, he hit me twice on the head,he wanted to tear me apart, I had nothing but my prayers to shield me.’

Meanwhile a question was beginning to take shape in me. I blurted out without much thinking – “what did he look like?’

Raman thought for a while and said – “he was an old man and looked rather more like a gentleman than an evil ghost.”

And I added – “ and he wore a long white coat.”

“yes, of course! But how do you know that?”

I looked at mother, she shook her head telling me in that simple gesture that some things should be kept unsaid. I shrugged to let him know that the whole matter of the tryst with a ghost was of no significance to me and replied in a matter of fact voice – “well, I just guessed it. I always thought that a ghost would look good in a thick white coat.” I let out an awkward chuckle and sighed inwardly wondering if we had seen the last of that ghost. I am never going to take that lonely lane again which until then had no name or number. Now mother and I call it street number 14 because this is the only way we have come to let ourselves believe that the shadow of a ghost had once crossed that path.