visit the Victorian blogs of Nicholson Political Officer and follow the story and also visit John Nicholson and the Great Mutiny. jef
And now it is 1842 and I am 20 years old. My Indian family is in Ferozepore, I hope, in my little bungalow, I hope, with my trunks. All of my trunks. Including that trunk. Knowing the Afghans penchant for arranging corpses of their enemy in comic positions for jackals to eat and vultures to peck at I decided a shroud would not be needed. If I die, if we all die, here in Kabul, we will be thrown out like garbage for wild animals to eat. It is 1842 and we are prisoners of Akbar Khan in his grotesque fort in Kabul. The British Army of Retribution is coming to avenge our ‘Lost 9th Legion’ but I cannot see how we will live to see that army march into Kabul.
George Lawrence brightened the day by telling tall tales about his brothers Lawrence and Henry. That was when I realized Henry Lawrence was his brother.
“You are related to The Henry Lawrence?”
George laughed. “Who does Henry create that sense of awe in people?”
“I mean… I mean…. Probyn was commanded to come and demand a better gun from no less than General Hearsay!”
“Henry is not god John! But don’t say I said that! Because Henry thinks he is a demigod! But yes. I am the baby brother of the Great Henry Lawrence! I hope if you meet my brother your awe will not be deflated to discover that Henry is merely human and not a demigod! Much less a god!” Everyone smiled as George went on to describe his two remarkable brothers. He was the youngest and seemed bland that he would only be remembered as the younger brother of the Great Henry Lawrence! “Brother Henry thinks the White Mughal approach might work but John thinks Afghanistan will always be a poisoned chalice to any country deluded enough to think it can ever be redeemed. Some places are sewers and will away be sewers and will never ever change even if you through pour a million pounds or a million lives into it! A sewer is a sewer! Afghanistan is and will always be a sewer! I think we are just a cat’s paw in the Great Game with Russia.”
“Your brothers are Ulstermen I believe?” Lady Sales asked. I could tell she already knew the answer.
“Indeed Madam! We are all ‘No Surrender!’ Ulster bastards! Henry is Addiscombe and John is Haileybury which was deemed more befitting his slightly calmer temper! When I blow up Henry sighs most saintly and John shuffles paper at his desk and dryly snipes “A man is judged by his actions as I will judge him!’ So I always sabotage John’s desk! Works every time!”
“What do you do to torment Henry then?” Lady Sales replied laughing.
“I say ‘Bless me Henry for I have sinned’ and then knell as if taking confession! Now Malady and gentlemen! Well I have an idea about bribing a particular piece of Afghan slime!”
“We have all been looted of any valuables!” Crawford said.
“And how can anyone trust an Afghan?” I replied. “They would sell out Jesus, Joseph, Mary, Mohammad, and the Buddha!”
“Exactly! The relief column is coming! You can tell! The rats are abandoning the sinking ship! So a handsome bribe actually might do the trick! Any Afghan right now is thinking about buttering both sides of his bread with ghee! And as you say. They will sell out absolutely everybody!”
We all turned to Palmer. “I have sounded the scoundrel out. It is a 50% chance. But I have smelled the wind and I think that Akbar Khan will kill us when the relief column reaches a mark on the map. I think we have to move —- now….”
So tonight the offer of a bribe is going to be delivered by George Lawrence and Palmer. We prepare to make a run for it in bribed Afghan Pathan dress convincingly smelly and dirty and foul! We darken our faces and pull dirty turbans low. Either it is a trap to kill us or else we will reach the Khyber Pass and the British lines by Sept. I will wrap this journal around my waist with a salvaged cashmere sash given to me by Lady Sales. Captain Souter wrapped his regiment’s colors around his waist. To each his own needful thing. This journal has become my needful thing. But this may be the very last entry I will ever live to make in it.
That dusk I walked among the wild roses of the ghostly ruined garden. I came to the unquiet grave of the shroud. I knelt down. I sang a dirge in English and then in Pashto.
‘I sing a dirge for a shroud.
Not for a woman for I know her not.
Not for a man for I know him not.
Not for a clan for I knew them not.
I sing a dirge for a shroud.
I sing a dirge for a shroud.
A shroud wrapping a woman alive
A shroud imprisoning a woman alive
A shroud burying a woman alive
I sing a dirge for a shroud.
I sing a dirge for a shroud.
A long black shroud once pale blue
a long black shroud of ghostly hue
a long black shroud damning you.
I sing a dirge for a shroud.
I sing a dirge for a shroud.
But I sing this Pashto lament for you
I sing this in Pashto to release you
I sing this in Pashto to liberate you.
I sing to free your soul from this shroud.’
I waited all night but saw nought but the moon riding the sky as I smelled the night blooming jasmine. I rose up at dawn. The smell of wild roses filled the dewy air. I turned to walk away. Then I heard a sound. I shuddered the way the young man shuddered as I turned around to see the banshee standing before me in her long black veil. Then she slowly, slowly, oh so slowly raised her long black veil and I saw her face. It was the face of a ten year old girl.
“I am so very sorry” I said.
She smiled. Then she tossed away the long black veil. She held up her pale face to the sun for the first and last time in her entire life. Then she smiled at me and walked away into the garden among the wild roses, vanishing into the dew of dawn. I looked down. Entangled in the spurs of my boots was the long veil. It was a shroud. I picked the shroud up. There was a small name tag. I read the name. Nicholson. I folded my shroud up very carefully the way one folds the nation’s flag. I told it back to my digs and put it at the bottom of my trunk for my funeral. The next day I was told I was being transferred to Fort Ghuzni in Afghanistan. It is 1841. I was 19 years old.
But then the father of the clan of the dead girl died of drowning. He apparently raved he saw a ghost washing his bloody clothes in the river and ran up to the riverbank to snatch the clothes away only to fall into the river and drown. Then the other brother died after raving he saw the banshee standing in the street before him. His camel reared up and threw him against the wall and he cracked his skull open and so died. . Another brother died when he claimed he saw the banshee from a window staring up at him. Then he cowered in the family home. But hearing a wail he ran down the stairs. And the stairs of the clan home being rickety, he fell and broke his neck. Another brother raved he saw the banshee and fled to his wife’s home only to die in the kitchen when boiling water fell on him scalding him to death. And uncle died then, falling by accident from the flat roof of his house. Then another uncle died. . Then a cousin. Then a nephew.
Then the so-called husband who had first bought the dead girl, then aged only ten, and raped her over and over and over then raved and raved and raved that her banshee haunted him. He raved her ghost following him relentlessly, staring at him through the windows of his house, standing over his bed as he deflowered another nine year old bride, and tormenting him night and day. Too late he found that the girl he ordered murdered for his Nang Honor, as a Honor Sacrifice, now returned to haunt her murderer: him! She pointed a bony finger at him. And he found there was no place for him to hide where she did not find him!
His nine year old bride was so terrorized she ran away screaming she was being forced to live in a haunted house and she bewailed her family for selling her to a murderer haunted by his murdered victim. Her family’s Nang was besmirched for now Peshawar considered this nine year old quite justified for running away. What family would sell a daughter to a murderer? Had they no Nang honor to sell her to a murderer? Captain Broadfoot and his bibi had to rescue the nine year old girl and send her off to a Sikh orphanage for sexually abused girls.
Then the wicked husband and murderer, exhausted by the relentless haunting by the banshee, decided to flee Peshawar. He mounted his horse and rode furiously out of the main gate of Peshawar. But he fell off his horse on the main road, on a clear day, after his horse reared up, after he reined it violently to swerve to avoid something or someone in the road that no other traveler saw. And his feet were entangled in the stirrups of his pony and it dragged him to his death —– over five miles.
Finally the last surviving grandfather came with his last surviving grandson and he stood before me. “You are Irish. Cast some Irish spell to slay anew this banshee before she slays my grandson. I do not ask for myself but for my grandson. Look at my grandson. He is only eleven.”
“How do you know the banshee has come for him?”
“Because each night before one of my clan died the banshee came and pounded her tiny fists on the front doors of the clan house wailing to be let in to share her damnation with us! And she cries out in her little girl’s voice the name of the next to die! And last night she pounded her little fists on the doors and wailed to be let in! And she cried out the name of my last surviving scion! This little boy! She will not come for me for she wants me to live an aged man alone! Denied heirs! The patriarch of a dead clan!”
After the grandfather and grandson left Captain Broadfoot came. “Son. Do you know any Irish spell to quiet an unquiet grave?”
“I …… confess I buried her because they left her body like garbage. I confess the young man was standing there watching as I buried her. I confess that the devil was in me because I tormented him with ghostly tales of Irish Banshees. But could tales of Irish Banshees bring a banshee to life? There are no banshees in India. Nor I think anyplace in the world but Ireland. Surely you cannot say I brought a banshee to life by merely describing one? We do not even know how the boy died!”
“The young man killed himself” Captain Broadfoot said. “Out of guilt. He told his clan about the banshee he claimed to have seen. Then he told his family how the banshee pounded her tiny fists on the doors of the clan house to be let in – share her damnation with them. Then he told his family their clamming for clan Nang caused him to violate his own Nang by murdering his own sister who now rests in an unquiet grave. So he told his family his besmirched Nang required him to kill himself.”
“But I did not describe a banshee pounding her tiny fists on the doors of the clan house to be let in to share her damnation with them” I protested. “And the reports said his body was found with only some minor scratches where the body fell into wild roses by her unquiet grave.”
“Yes. There was no earthly cause for his death!”
“No clear cause perhaps!” I replied. “But he might have taken poison? Or a viper might have bitten his heel!”
“I saw no bites and no Pathan would take poison! That is most dishonorable!”
“Perhaps he took poison to die so as to appear to have died of Banshee!”
“‘Revenge is a dish best served cold!’ Pathan saying! The boy might have taken my Irish ghost story and served it a dish of revenge on his family for ordering him to slay his sister as a honor killing! He murdered her under duress and was consumed by guilt! I cannot believe even if a banshee has come back from an unquiet grave that she would slay him! Others! But not him! But this way his apparently mysterious death infected his family with contagious terror!”
“I think not Nicholson! I think that poor young man committed suicide by returning to the unquiet grave of the sister he murdered to allow her to murder him!” Captain Broadfoot came up to me then. “You brought a banshee to life by describing it! Describe a banshee back to death then!”
“A banshee is already dead” I replied. “This is all self fulfilling fear!”
“Then describe her gone then!”
The Imam came to me. I asked him why he came to see a filthy kafir. “Because yesterday a good Muslim came and told his family a banshee had stood before him and raised her long black veil and he beheld her face ,and he knew her face, and it was the face of his shameful sister, and he said he was going to die. And die he did. The very next morning!”
I blinked but then acted bland. “Good” I said. “We Irish export banshees along with shamrocks and ‘Old Danny Boy’. It is our national gift to the world. But surely Pathans would not fear banshees! Banshees are ghosts of women murdered by men. In this ‘City of Men’ populated by the most fearless of men, Pathan men, you need have no fear of banshees! Pathans fear nothing! Certainly not females! I think you are afraid! Is it because you blessed a marriage of a pre-adolescent child to a middle aged pervert! Who raped her!” Then I stood straight with my chin high in the air as my passions cooled. “ The boy probably died of a viper or a bee.” The Imam glared at me. “This is not of my jurisdiction Imam as well you know! We British cannot interfere in private affairs of the natives here. Pray to your god Imam that your god will save you!” Then he stood up and spat on me and marched out.
People later told Captain Broadfoot that the Imam screamed of seeing a banshee by the river washing his tunic which ran red with blood. And he raved that when she saw him watch her she then held up a sodden bed sheet which was from his own bed! And it was stained with blood and semen. And she pointed to the evidence of his corruption. And he raved she said ‘This evil will become your shroud for you will die, and I will stand over you as you die, and I will curse you to hell, and all of your secret corruption will erupt out of you, and you will be damned eternally.’
The Imam fled to his mosque where he had preached of the damnation of women. According to Muslims almost all women go to hell for they are polluted by bad menstrual blood, and filled with polluted semen, they are utterly and absolutely corrupting of men, evil as pigs, and filthy as dogs. He cowered in the mosque and people wondered to see him cower for he was most notoriously proud.
He had infuriated the Pathan clans by his pride. He had claimed his authority as the Imam trumped the authority of clan khans, and superceded decisions made at clan jirgas, and even claimed the authority of his mosque trumped the authority of the village council of khans called the hujras. He had even in his Arabic pride declared that the offer of Captain Broadfoot to teach the boys written Pashto was evil — because the boys had to learn to read absolutely only at a Muslim school, and then only learn Arabic to read the Koran and absolutely nothing else. The Imam had declared all oral Pashto epics, poetry, and songs evil along with Pashto dances and obscure Pashto ceremonies. He had even defaced the local tomb of a local Pashto poet because that poet was also a Sufi saint. Jirgas has been held in every clan home debating what was to be done. A Hujras had been called too of all of the clans in Peshawar. But now apparently Destiny had decided to deal directly with the Imam!
By chance that night lighting struck the mosque. It triggered a most strange outburst of Saint Elmo’s Fire. The ghostly blue flames danced through the mosque. Seeing the dancing flames the Imam screamed in utter terror. Had he been home he would not have seen it. No. Not at all. Thus he died of a heart attack. The ‘City of Men’ considered the disputation thus resolved. But the banshee had other ideas……
“You don’t fear banshees but I do. Where I come from, Ireland, banshees can rise up from shrouds left unburied.”
“What is a banshee?” the young man asked in that oddly soft, slightly quivering voice.
“A banshee is a sort of ghost who haunts the living. A banshee appears at dawn or dust. A banshee wears black funeral clothes and a long black veil. They are always female. Always. Always. You are lucky you do not have banshees here in Peshawar. For there is no ghost more fearsome!”
“Female ghosts? Who could fear that? In Peshawar no man fears any woman. Women here….. are…..” his oddly soft, slightly quivering voice stopped as if overcome with emotion he could not admit to feeling.
“Banshees are most dire female ghosts! They wail such wails as make your blood curdle! They sing lamentations until your skin pricks with fear! They scream out dirges so dire your heart pounds in terror! When you see a banshee washing clothes at dawn or dust at a river or pond you will see blood oozing into the water! From bloody clothes! Of a dead man! Not yet dead!”
“How can dead man be not yet dead?”
“Because the banshee washes the clothes of the next man doomed to die! And when she washes the clothes of the man doomed next to die there is no way that man can elude his fate! And if you see a banshee washing bloody clothes in stream or pond you are compelled to creep up to see the blood oozing into the water!”
“Why to see if they are your clothes the banshee is washing!” The young man flinched but the devil was in me so I continued. “And when you meet a banshee at dusk or dawn you tremble as if rooted to ground as she comes closer and closer and closer….”
“Because if the banshee slowly, slowly, oh so slowly, raises up her long black veil then you see her face! And it is the face of death! A face like a skull. Eyes sunken like dark holes. Teeth like fangs in withered gums. And a tiny trickle of —-blood. And then you know!”
“Why that you are destined to die next! And she has already tasted your blood. And when you die she will be there! By your side! To stand on your chest as you die! And then she will kneel down and …..kiss …. you ….. drinking your blood…..”
“And then what happens?” the young man whispered, his face pale.
“And then you pray you are buried in a jackal proof burial because that is where you stay. Not on heaven. Not in hell. Not in Nirvana. Not in any reincarnation. You just stay a rotting corpse in a hole as the maggots eat you!”
I smiled and then I bowed my head and walked casually through the ghostly, rundown ruin of the ancient Mughal garden.
“Will the banshee smell of wild rose and night blooming jasmine?” the young man shouted to me with quiet panic.
“Oh yes. This banshee will! Most definitely!” I replied as I strolled away in the growling light of morning. I ignored his trembling voice or the soft whimpers he made as if seeing something so fearsome even he, a Pathan Male, trembled.
Captain Broadfoot met me at the cantonment. “Rumors say a young girl was killed last night. Honor killing. Brother killed her. She had been ordered to marry her cousin. Three times her age the man was. And vile. She refused. They forcibly married her anyway. He tied her to a bed and raped her. Finally she escaped and fled back to her father’s home and pounded on the doors for her family to let her in. And a younger brother broke clan Nang by opening the door to let her in. And thus he shamed the family. The husband refused to take her back. So they were bound by clan Nang to return the dowery which they did not have or else be disgraced. For the Nang of the family she was ordered killed. Honor killing. The brother who violated Nang by letting in back into the clan home was ordered to kill her because he had loved her the most of all of his sisters. Indeed he so very much loved her he turned a blind eye when she fled into the twilight. Thus he violated Nang twice. He may have to die now too!”
“I wish she could kill them all! Her entire family of Pathan males!”
Captain Broadfoot paused. “Son. We are here as intruders. This is not our culture and we have few rights to impose our culture on their culture. Here a girl is married at nine or ten and raped by her pervert husband and that is the way it is. Here a girl is the totem of Nang Honor of the clan. If the clan loses face she must be sacrificed. Honor killing. And we have no authority to stop it.”
“Human Sacrifice! This is 1840!”
“Agamemnon so slew his own daughter! And there are villages all over India where no female baby has ever been born alive! And they openly boast of it! Women are garbage. And we cannot be seen as interfering! John! Do you understand!”
That night at dusk the young brother of the dead sister walked in the ruined garden and they found his body the next morning quite dead, entangled in the brambles of the wild roses. His face, people whispered, was the face of utter terror. But what terror could terrorize a proud Pathan male?
Peshawar ended on a dark note that proved to be a dire omen. I was walking down a road just outside the city walls, in the ruins of the ghostly decayed gardens of the long gone Mughals when I saw a living shroud run passed me. The girl in a pale blue shroud was running, running, running in such desperation! She actually had her shroud up so she could see. Those pale blue living shrouds all but blind women you see. So I saw her face. She was terrified. It was like the terra cotta head of the terrified woman I bought. She was utterly terrified. That was all I saw. It was so shocking you see to actually see a woman or girl in the ‘City of Men’ and to see her with her living shroud up exposing her face was even more shocking. And to see that face consumed with utter terror!
She ran passed me into the twilight. There was a faint smell of roses. Then I was alone in the ruins of the garden again. It was as if I had dreamed it. Then I saw some eight or ten men running up to me. Except they were not running up to me but rather chasing the fleeing girl in the living shroud. They had weapons in their hands and were howling.
Quickly I drew a line in the dirt and stood there as I pulled out my Indian saber. I then exclaimed in their Pashto tongue that “My Nang Honor requires I fight the first man who crosses this line in the dirt!”
“What? You English are all mad dogs! Stand aside kafir!”
“I have come to this garden to challenge the first man to cross this line in the dirt!” I exclaimed. “It is my Nang.! My Honor! I declared it to my fellow officers. I said I would do this thing! Who will cross this line in the dirt and fight me?”
“Mad kafir! We do not have time for this silly nonsense!”
“Is Nang silly nonsense!” I exclaimed. I held the saber firmly. I desperately hoped the girl was fleeing away into the darkness and that my quixotic gesture would save her. The men growled furiously but Nang required Nang.
“A duel kafir? To the death or first blood?”
“A duel. The end is as it will end!” A young man then suddenly came out and stood before me. He stared at me most intently and then he deliberately crossed the line as his clan snarled howling.
“We have not the time for this silliness!”
“Nang is Nang” the young man replied to his elders as they snarled. “As you have lectured me this day!”
The young man held his saber and I held my saber. I had no small round shield. Nor did he. Then our sabers struck each other as the metal rang out in the growing twilight. We fought hard and furiously among the wild roses and the night blooming jasmine. I had been practicing with Captain Broadfoot and I gambled now and stuck the young man’s cheaper blade with my Sheffield fake Indian saber. It was a trick my captain taught me. My steel shattered his inferior iron. He was disarmed. I could now slay him. But that was not the point was it? I was buying time without appearing to be buying time. I gestured and then I bowed. “My Nang is satisfied.” My boot brushed the line in the dirt away.
It was now quite dark. It was a half moon night. The young man bowed his proud head slightly. I saw a very slight tear in one eye. Or was it the trick of the moon? Then the men ran past me furiously. I could not admit knowing why they were there so I slowly walked back to my cantonment. Later at dawn I again walked in the moonlight of the empty and deserted garden. Some fifty feet ahead of the spot where I drew the line in the dirt I found a shroud. It was no longer a living shroud. The shroud had been left like garbage in the dirt.
I dug a grave and eased the very bloody shroud, now very much a shroud, into the hole and then I layered rocks and stones and branches and brambles. I saw a man move in the early dawn light. He stood a little to one side. He watched me silently.
“The Jackals will eat her.”
“No. I learned this in the Great Trunk Road. It is Road Burial. It foils jackals. I want to practice the skill so I won’t forget how to do it. Who knows when I might need to dig a grave for a friend or lover of mine? It is a skill I do not want to forget.”
“It is garbage. It should be left” the young man said very softly in an odd voice that quivered very slightly.
“It was left here so no one appears to want to claim it. It is just a shroud. I am just burying as shroud. Someone left a shroud. It is not an living shroud. I am merely practicing road burial. That is all.” I finished the grave and pressed the layers of rocks and stones and brambles and branches down firmly. Then I stood up. It was bright dawn. Then I realized the man was the same young man I had fought the duel with last night. Was it my imagination or was there a tear in his eye?
“My clan might come after you English.”
“Why?” I replied. “I but bury a shroud someone left here.”
“Clan Nang is uncompromising” the young man replied in that oddly soft, slightly quivering voice. “It does not forgive or forget.” Beware English! Beware getting tangled in our Nang!”