Every night before bed, my son whispers that there’s a preta who lives in our house.
He says it takes off all its skin—I’ve caught my son nude before, looking at himself in the mirror, shoving his belly out like a pregnant woman, grimacing—so as not to make noise. He says the creature is hungry, and that when we’re eating dinner, it presses its bleeding ears to the walls and listens. Behind the drywall, in a space I can’t see, the preta smells the food we’re eating. It wrings its waxy hands while its wet tongue drips with saliva, slithering on the wall like a centipede. My son laughs when he explains how dirty the creature is. It pinches the small eyeballs that grow on its body like pimples, squeezing them until they explode. It only needs two eyes, he says. It’s hungry, not blind.
When we go to sleep, the preta comes out and feeds on our leftovers. It sniffs the garbage bins, licks naan crumbs from the floor, slips its tongue into deep crevices looking for uncooked rice. When I tried making biryani for dinner, my son complained that it was undercooked, and I felt a great pang of guilt throwing it away. That night, my son says, the preta slurped it all down in the darkness. When it finds something to quench its never-ending hunger, it sweats and pants, breathing so heavily with excitement that its navel oozes with partially digested leftovers. The creature will never fully digest, it will only want and want, and it will never be satiated.
What it wants, my son says, is us. To eat us.
I listen to him describe it, unsure whether what he’s saying is something he believes or the idle imaginations of a precocious eight-year-old. He tells me all this, of course, right before he drifts to sleep, when I’m otherwise alone in this home, waiting for the night to hover over me like a blanket.
He does not talk solely about the preta. During the daytime, he is my little boy, all hope and curiosity. He gets ready for school, sings songs, kicks his feet out in front of himself as he gets dressed. He tells me he’ll be a doctor when he grows up, to save everyone in the world.
One time I made the mistake of telling him to save insects first, as there are so many of them—so many flies and ticks and spiders and ants—that no doctor has time for them.
He laughed at this silly joke. I told him it’s no joke.
They are like this preta of his. All they eat are crumbs and dead fruit flies.
His eyes were like ancient globes of amber, glazed with a thin film of honey. He said, even though you were born here, you still don’t know everything that’s in this house. His eyes flickered to the wall behind the kitchen. That was the only time my son whimpered.
After he left for school, I went through the heaving bookshelves at the back of the home, old Tamil books that smelled like dust and decades-old mothballs. These were books of my grandparents that no one had the heart to look through after they passed.
I pulled out a massive tome on mythology, seeking out the creature my son had described. A drawing accompanied it, a dark shadow drenched in darker fluids. There it was on page 108 in a looping and curling script.
The preta is identified more broadly as the spirits of the dead. Given the peculiar Hindu way of looking at life, some of these spirits are good, while others are bad, just like the human beings they were once. On the other hand, Buddhists classify all spirits as preta, in the sense that they are beings that crave something.
It sounded something like humans, too, I supposed.
In the end, they all crave and can never stop craving. Pretas want and want, their bodies disfigured by their desires, their hunger never satiated, and their minds focused on what will never satisfy their boundless need.
Vikram Ramakrishnan is a writer and computer programmer based in New York. He’s an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania and enthusiastic member of Odyssey Writing Workshop’s class of 2020. Recently, he won the 17th Annual Gival Short Story Award. His stories have been published in SAND Journal and Newfound.