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The epidemic was beginning to peak when Doctor Smrt took over the mortuary. Yesterday, the diener, his assistant, had gone missing. Some said she was an illegal immigrant, had been discovered and taken away by the police for questioning. Others said that she had to attend something unavoidable like a family funeral in her faraway land. She might even have gone away to escape the situation that was largely out of control, but no one said so in as many words.
The hospital was located besides an old abandoned church and the mortuary was on the other side, down the slope of the hill in an old building that looked abandoned too. But a faint mechanical sound signified that it was still in use, especially audible in the silence of the night. Some distance below in the plains, lay the town from where the sick were brought to the hospital and from among them, the dead to the mortuary.
Staff at the hospital was dwindling. Many had gone away like his assistant, some dying of the infection and others just abandoning their post. Hardly any of the patients who came in ever recovered either, but the diener had kept meticulous records till her last day.
Meticulously handwritten registers lay stacked in a locked glass cabinet in the foyer of the mortuary. On each new page, the diener drew perfectly parallel lines to demarcate exactly thirteen columns. Each column had distinct details of the dead – name, age, date and reason for dying, among others. Each record bore a serial number allocated in perfect continuum. Each page had exactly seventeen entries and each register exactly ninety-seven of its one hundred pages filled. In one register he found the first, the seventeenth and the ninety-seventh pages were left blank. Thus each register had the record of 1649 dead persons.
The top of the cabinet was adorned by a sumptuous ironstone vase.
Every evening, he walked to the mortuary from the main hospital, across the abandoned church, a distance that he covered in 199 steps, dragging stretchers, making as many trips as there were the dead, and he no longer found time to fill the registers.
For many months now, he had been bringing down the dead. But the mortuary was nowhere near full. He always found empty racks to put the corpses away. He no longer even attached the little name tags around their big toes. Then he started noticing patterns, the simple ones at first.
In one section, every seventeenth rack was empty and in another, the seventeenth, nineteenth, twenty-third and twenty-nineth. In yet another section down the corridor, all odd-numbered racks, except 89 and 97 were full.
Thus he got familiar with each section, and that helped him locate the empty racks. When a section was full, he moved on to the next and after some time, became quite adept at deciphering the patterns.
One day the death toll was particularly high and he was still moving corpses to the mortuary late on a still, moonless night. Yesterday he had completely filled up a particular section and tonight he had to find empty racks in an entirely new one. This one had a new pattern, of even numbers and their halves and quarters that were empty too, if they were even. Having put away all the corpses, he was astonished. The number he brought in today exactly filled up the empty racks of the section.
Soon he knew almost every rule that determined the numbers and locations of the empty racks. Often the rules repeated themselves, with minor variations. Once he even came across an entire sequence of sections where the number of empty racks were equal, but their positions were a combinatorial variation of one another. In some sections the even became the odd and in others the filled became the empty and vice versa.
By now he knew many sections and every evening was able to match the number of the dead with the number of empty racks. Then he started noticing that the paths leading from one section to another followed patterns and allowed him to logically arrive at a new section from a previous one that had precisely the number of empty racks as the number of dead he would bring in tomorrow.
It did cross his mind that if he were able to traverse the entire mortuary, he would know the exact number of people who would die from the epidemic in the little town.
Then he noticed that the sick were now arriving from beyond and perhaps other countries as well. There were people of different races and different religions and they prayed in different ways in the moments before they died.
By now he had seen crosses strewn on the floor of the hospital wards. He had seen the number 786 written in blood on pillows. He had seen replicas of the phallus and strange idols. He had seen candles being lit, though he forbade it, as it might cause fires. He smelt strange incense and he found the dead clasping rosaries and grains of uncooked rice. There were holy books and once a stone tablet with strange characters, later identified as a forgotten Brahmi script last used in Kalinga thousands of years ago.
Hidden in the sleeves of the dead he found money from strange lands and gold and diamonds of immense value. But all this had to be discarded in a heap, as he wrapped the dying in roughly hewn identical linen shrouds, zipping them into body bags and finally lining them onto stretchers, awaiting their short journey to the mortuary. The body bags he had in plenty, arriving mysteriously from a country’s military stocks meant for a nuclear holocaust.
By now he had lost track of time. How long he had been at the mortuary? Was it a hundred days or a thousand? Or was it some special number like 1729 because today was special. He had only one dead and he knew the exact section that had one empty rack and also the way to it.
But when he was in the foyer by the glass cabinet full of registers, he noticed for the first time the other door. It was partially hidden behind the cabinet and the sumptuous ironstone vase that invariably drew his gaze. Today for some reason he had walked closer, because the cabinet seemed more full of registers than before, and when the second door caught his attention, he momentarily overcame the regret at not having filled the registers, ever since the diener mysteriously disappeared.
Mysteriously disappeared, and what if she were dead too? There was rumour that she ate strange animals and had once fallen violently sick.
He thought that if the diener was dead, she too would be in the mortuary. Could he look for her? Had she died on the day she disappeared? By now he knew the calculations well and he could work out in which section and rack she would be, if that were so.
His pace quickened. It had never happened before, but he broke into a sweat. Till now he could always find any section and any rack effortlessly, the calculations ticking effortlessly in his mind as he made his way across the passages, halls, rooms and little nooks. Today the entire place looked like an infinite labyrinth. He measured his steps and counted his turns and all the time worried if he’d missed something out. One wrong turn or a miscount of steps and he could arrive in an entirely different place.
But there he was finally.
The diener’s rack was in this section. He remembered her face clearly and that she always wore trousers and shoes that fitted her unimaginably small feet. He remembered the easy way in which she handled the corpses during the post-mortems, holding up heads and effortlessly making deep cuts across the torso in a single staccato stroke. He tried to remember how many years, months and days might have passed since she could have died and then he arrived at the spot. He took a moment to catch his breath and wipe his brow. Then he pushed open the rack and expected to see the faint contours of the mass inside a body bag, but that was not so. The rack was empty.
Standing there for a moment, for the first time in all these days he was frightened. He turned and started back for the foyer. In the first stretch itself he miscounted his steps and forgot a turn. He arrived in a strange passage. He tried every possible calculation that he could recall, but kept on arriving in places that he did not recognize.
He then remembered memorising locations where one passage crossed another. He had discovered earlier that no matter from which direction he arrived at such an intersection, any of the other three would lead him to the exit.
It was pitch dark. Many times this had not mattered as he found places simply by counting steps and turning in the right direction. For the first time he inhaled the faint stench of death and then it struck him that the mortuary had fallen silent and the mechanical sound in the background had stopped.
He did arrive at a cross-passage. He needn’t have worried because the passages formed a complete graph, that allowed him to find the shortest distance between any two points in the mortuary every time.
In the foyer, the cabinet was now overflowing with registers, stacked in every possible way. The glass doors were ajar and its padlock nowhere in sight. The ironstone vase stood on top and for the first time he noticed that it had the face of one of the ancient emperors of the diener’s land that stared back at him. He opened a register at random, the same neat thirteen columns, but the dates as recent as yesterday and the day before. It was the same familiar handwriting with the distinctive look. The characters were of the language of this land, and yet looked from somewhere else, formed using brush strokes, tapering away at the serifs and tips.
He looked around himself, alarmed and as if there was somebody else nearby.
It was then that he remembered the other door, opened it and stepped inside and was blinded for a moment. It was a brightly lit ornate hall where everything was symmetrical and in pairs, two chandeliers, two side tables, two armchairs in the far corners, but in the centre was a single narrow bed. Directly above the bed were two bells hung from the ceiling, with strings reaching down to the floor on either side.
Leichendiener, he finally remembered the full title, as he stood by the narrow bed and looked up at the ceiling. Earlier as he rushed back here, his throat had dried up and his body shivered at the first signs of fever. He wanted to lie down and thought he could hold on to the bell strings for support but they rang and echoed even when he let them go and unsettled him even more. In the bright glittering light that the chandeliers cast over the grand rococo hall, the circular golden floral patterns on the ceiling had begun to blur.
He saw in a flash that in searching for her empty rack, he had traversed the entirety of the mortuary, and it was now full. He tried calculating one last time. The diener had obviously laid out the entire plan from the beginning till the person before, and he had deciphered every bit, but now he couldn’t find his own final place.
It was the perfect crime. Even his own masters who had sent him to this enemy land, couldn’t have thought of this. But then why was he here?
He tried clearing his parched throat, but only let out a dry rattle that echoed for a moment, and then the light seemed to heave across the room as though it were water and that made him choke and grasp for breath. It was in that instant of absolute silence that he finally heard the approaching footsteps.
Find out more about author Sanjay Dharwadker here.