It was rainy and the branches shed heavy drops on anyone who lingered near them. Lina staggered and knocked at the gatekeeper’s door, her stomach rumbling.

The gatekeeper’s wife opened her door, her knees rubbing against her long dress, making a silky sound.

“Yes?” She looked at Lina, suspiciously.

“Ma’am, I heard that you need a housemaid…” Lina stopped, stifling her deep voice. “Keep it subdued,” her father had warned her. Lina stared at the lady’s dress, unable to take her eyes off her dress pattern. Lina felt that live silkworms were still crawling in her long gown.

“Yes, we do.” The lady looked at her, shrewdly. “Where are you from? I have never seen you in this town before.”

“I am from the neighboring town, ma’am. My uncle, Mr. Rodney’s cook, told me that you were looking for a housemaid.”

The lady looked a little relieved. She knew old Rodney. He was a chief laborer who helped in the construction of monasteries. He was a wealthy man.

“Can you do housework?” The lady stared at Lina’s soft hands, her suspicious look back.

“Yes, ma’am. I used to cook and clean in my house,” said Lina.

“Okay. Come in.”

Lina tried to step in. “Hold on. Are you educated?” the lady asked, sharply.


“Can you read and write?” the lady gestured impatiently.

“No, ma’am.” Lina’s voice betrayed a slight tremble.

The lady showed her the room where Lina would sleep at night. It was a small room with a wooden floor. There was a lantern and an expensive carpet on the floor. Lina felt happy for the first time in days. It was a perfect place for her to study scripts. Her heart thudded with excitement at the thought of studying new languages in “her” room.

“So, you have a new maid?” A low, cold voice made Lina turn around. It was the graveyard gatekeeper, the master of the house, and the wealthiest man in the village.

Mr. Stone, the gatekeeper, was a tall, thin man. He had a habit of looking sideways when people least expected him to look at them, thus catching their true expression.

He kept away the ghosts, many villagers had whispered to Lina. There were stories of half-burnt bodies raising and beckoning him to join them, but he strongly resisted and subdued them, the people said. He kept their village safe.

The village had taken to cremation ever since buried people started coming back. The last was a 10-year-old boy who walked back to his house. The leech said he had not died in the first place. So, they stoned the leech. Now the boy lived with the leech on the outskirts of the city. Lina recalled her dad supplying herbs to the leech.

“Give the girl something to eat; she looks famished,” whispered the gatekeeper to the cook. Lina felt gratified when she heard it.

After Mr. Stone departed for work in his spacious barouche, Lina got to meet the other people of the house. The Stones had two children, who were quiet and obedient. Their nanny, a young woman in her late twenties, seemed as shrewd as Mrs. Stone. The cook was a young boy of around 19. He gave Lina a sweet smile. The old gardener, who barely glanced at her and never came inside the house, was probably over 80.

That night, Mrs. Stone dismissed her sleepily after Lina pressed her legs. Lina closed the door to her room and waited. She saw the moon over the trees and the hushed whisper of the crickets. After an hour, she excitedly got up and lit the lantern. She caressed the soft carpet which seemed to wriggle in her hands. She placed her parchment on the carpet and looked keenly at the script that went from right to left. It had come to her father from a chemist in the east. The chemist had been put to death on charges of being a spy. She began to translate it into her native language. The chemist had written a detailed description of a crab-like tumor in different parts of the human body. He had also specified an herbal treatment for these protruding tumors. Lina recalled how her 13-year-old friend had died ten years ago and the town surgeon had later found a protruding growth on her abdomen. If only she could deliver this to her father and if he can locate the herbs, will there no longer be any surgery for these crabs? The carpet seemed to slide as if it meant to drag her inside the floor. Lina shook her head; she was sleepy. In her dreams, she saw the two mustached men in the carpet smiling at her. She woke up as she felt the sunlight on her face. She hurried to the living room to find all the servants busy with their chores. Her mistress scowled at her and the nanny smiled maliciously. When she swept the floors after an hour, Mrs. Stone said, “Here, I have brought your tea for you.”

As Lina took the cup, a silkworm from Mrs. Stone’s dress slipped inside the cup. Lina dropped the cup. Mrs. Stone’s eyes flashed as she walked away without a word. As Lina mopped the house, she found the strange silky carpets in the rooms of the cook and the nanny. There were none in the Stone’s and their kids’ rooms. One of the men in the carpets was dressed in contemporary fashion, but the other was dressed in the clothes of a bygone era. The carpet men’s smiles reminded Lina of someone. The cook looked at her as she crossed his room. “Shall I bring your breakfast?” he asked, smiling. Suddenly, Lina was reminded of the two men on the carpet. He looked exactly like them when he smiled, she realized. Lina’s hands ached as she scrubbed the kids’ room.

“Aunt Rimmer, I want to be the best painter in the world when I grow up,” said the little boy, Daryl.

“You will, my dear,” replied the nanny in soft tones.

Lina quickly turned to look at her. The nanny’s icy features seemed to melt with the boy’s voice. Her usual condescending look was replaced by softness and warmth. There was fierce devotion in her eyes. The kids, Daryl and Felicia, looked more like Rimmer than Mrs. Stone. Was it because they probably loved her more than their mother? It was none of her business, Lina felt. Rimmer smiled at Lina, the scornful expression back. “I have sliced some pears for you,” she held out a plate. A lizard from the wall fell on the plate. Rimmer dropped the plate down and screamed. The lizard looked sharply at Lina, hissed, and crawled away. Mrs. Stone glanced at Rimmer from the living room, a disappointed look on her eyes. Declining the cook’s sweet offer of supper, Lina made herself some porridge. She distrusted him the most. They were all trying to kill her on her second day in the house. How did they find out? She stealthily checked her room. The parchment was still under the pillow, where she had hidden it. Lina knew that they would never turn her out of the house. As per the law, she will be cremated in the garden of the house. She would need to escape and find a safer place in one of the neighboring villages, from where she would carry out her translation works.

That night, Lina pushed aside the carpet as she focused on her translation work. Cold, she shivered as she looked at her locked door, wondering if anyone would come to get her. She did not know what she should do next and how she should protect herself.

When Lina swept the yard the next morning, she heard a wild shriek. She looked up to see an eagle and something fell near her. It was a dagger. The old gardener stood near the rose bush, his hand still raised, a brutal gleam in his eyes. Lina shivered as she realized she must have moved a little at the shriek of the bird. The gardener went back to watering the rose bush with a tender smile.

“Now the eagles have started helping her, too,” murmured the cook to the nanny.

Indeed, the nanny, the cook, and Mrs. Stone had searched her room and discovered the parchment. They could not understand anything about it. They were glad, for it was a sin to learn something beyond what nature intended them to. They would hand the parchment to the authorities, but they had to do away with the girl first.

That evening, Mr. Stone arrived early. He glanced at her with his usual sideways look and sighed. He gave her a thirsty look. Oh, no, thought Lina. If only he knew. At least, he would not try to do away with me, she thought.

The next morning, Lina heard the cook inform his mistress that the gardener was ill and confined to his room. She stepped hesitantly into the backyard and was suddenly filled with a sense of exhilaration. The trees from afar stood misty and dark, not having shed the embrace of the night. The shaped and groomed trees in the Stones’ stood still, no breeze ruffling them. Lina wanted to infuse them with her joy and liveliness, make them sway, and bring them out of their dead stance. However, there was an ancient oak tree which seemed a poor fit among the styled, well-cut trees. Lina crept closer to the oak tree. As she strolled near it, she noticed a slab near the trunk of the tree. In two days, she would be able to translate the whole of the herbal medication, Lina calculated. She thought back to how she had learned Persian.

Next, she would try to learn the script that had a line on top of each word. It belonged to the East, too. It was called Prakrit. In her excitement, she did not notice the slab creaking open. In a moment, she found herself slipping inside. It was a deep hole, at the end of which there were two coffins. One of the coffins was open. Something that appeared to be a skeleton was covered in a colorful shroud, which bore the picture of the two smiling men. Some maggots peeped out of the shroud and made a rustling panicky noise. Lina felt herself being pulled, almost coaxed inside by some force when she felt a tug above. It was Mr. Stone. He held out his hand. “Quick. Hold it.” There was an urgency in his voice. He pulled her up with some effort and closed the slab with a thud. The maggots fell silent, seemingly relieved.

“Come with me,” he said and pulled her to a rusty shed nearby. “Nobody comes here.”

Lina followed him, half-fearful and half-expectant.

“You should be careful where you go,” he muttered.

“Whose coffins are those?” she asked, her heart still thudding.

“Our former gardener and housemaid.”

Lina’s heart almost stopped, “What happened?”

Mr. Stone looked down. “They were killed by my cook. He is the deadliest of them all. The girl was involved in teaching herbal benefits and my former gardener dealt in symbols and numbers.”

Lina felt giddy, but she hoped her face was expressionless. “I know everybody wants to do away with me. What is your game?”

“All I want is for you to live, Lina.” Mr. Stone said urgently. He took out something from a rusty window in the shed. “I have made a word-to-word copy of what you had written. You should not leave it around carelessly. The old gardener used to sew his work inside the pillow. Still, they found it out.”

Lina jerked her head at his words, but he was staring at the parchment with a thirsty look on his eyes. It was then that she realized that he thirsted for knowledge and not for her. A strange sense of disappointment shook her and she began to sob, not bothering to hide her male undertones. Mr. Stone patted her shoulder, compassion in his eyes. He did not seem to care about her identity. “I will do my best to protect you.”

“Yet you could not protect your old servants,” she muttered, for she was not frightened of him.

“I tried,” he whispered and beckoned to his house, “But they found out. The ancestral carpet told them.”


“The picture in this carpet is of the two ancestors in this family. One lived a century ago. And the other died five years ago. They tell on the servants in this house, especially ones that are read and write.”

Mr. Stone sighed as Lina gave him a shocked look. “The men in the carpets dole out secrets of the servants to their direct descendants, the cook of this house.”

Mr. Stone continued as Lina gaped at him.

“No. I am not the original descendant of the graveyard gatekeeper. The cook was not up to performing the task of a graveyard gatekeeper. His expertise lies in stealthy acts, not bravery. So, the locust pointed to me.”

Lina knew that the great locust in the east end farm always pointed to the right person for a job. And the graveyard gatekeeper’s job was the most important one in every town and village.

“When I realized that my wife didn’t love our children at all, I rushed to the locust,” Mr. Stone confessed. “It pointed in the direction of Rimmer, who had lost her children. God knows Rimmer is a cruel woman, but she loves the children.”

Lina looked around the shed, inhaling the smell of mud. “Does nobody ever visit this shed?”

“Well, thankfully, this shed is protected by earthworms. They will breathe fire on anyone who decides to visit.” Mr. Stone smiled a little.

They heard the creaking noise of a bird and Lina felt strangely peaceful and calm, in contrast to her exhilaration an hour ago.

Mr. Stone looked at her, intensely. “Will you teach me Persian and Arabic? And also the one that has a line above each word; the one that you were speaking about the previous night in your dreams?” he asked almost, shyly.

Lina raised her eyebrows, too tired to feel surprised at anything, anymore. “The carpets were at it again,” Mr. Stone explained.

He caressed the parchment and said in a low voice, “The people in this house are no fools, even if they resist and fear knowledge. They know I help the servants and try to preserve their secrets.” Here, his voice grew vehement, “They have destroyed knowledge so far. But, I will do my best to help you and get this task done,” he repeated.

Lina took his hands and raised it to her tearful eyes. She knew now why all the worms, birds, and reptiles had helped her. She would not fail them or Mr. Stone. Knowledge would prevail and she would play her part.