By: Antara Roy Oruganti
‘What a dark night!’ I said out loud to myself. I had been walking alone for quite a while now, and the sound of my voice sounded unfamiliar to my ears.
The bus in which I was traveling back to my home town had broken down, and the passengers had all sat waiting on the steps of an old church.
It was a bitterly cold night and the conductor of the bus was resourceful enough to kindle a fire. The warmth of this blazing fire and the comforting company of strangers had kept me going so far. But abruptly, I had sprung up on my feet, waved a friendly goodbye to the surprised faces, and set out on my lonesome walk to town.
‘The youth these days!’ Exclaimed an old man, one of the fellow passengers. ‘They simply won’t wait. In our times, we would wait for hours when…’
But I hadn’t stopped to hear what the old man had to say. With great enthusiasm, I marched ahead and turned a bend. The broken down bus, the bonfire and those strangers huddled together on the steps of the old church had all faded into the darkness behind me. And, in front of me lay miles and miles of twisting, winding roads that promised no end or respite. The sky above was partly cloudy, with the moon casting its silvery glow every now and then, and the wind, it was low and inexplicably haunting.
After walking for an hour or so, I sat down to rest by the side of a dark, desolate path. I figured it would take me a while before I reached the great enchanting lake, or Barapani, as it was called.
It was difficult to tell how far I had come. What with the darkness, the never-ending road and the dense spread of forest all around me, I seemed to have lost all sense of time and space.
Time and again, cars sped by and I insistently raised a friendly hand, gesturing for the drivers to stop. But all I got for an answer was a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes that momentarily blinded the path.
‘Do I look so scary, after all,’ I mused in the darkness, ‘that no one wants to give me a ride?’
I chuckled in the darkness and remembered the stories I had heard of a wandering spirit in this part of the highway.
‘Rubbish! Utter rubbish! Just because they have probably heard this story, they are afraid to give me a ride. They think I’m a spirit!’
An ice-cold wind blew across my face, freezing me to the bones. The monstrous trees stood high above me, their tops veiled by the drifting clouds and mist. And from all corners the crickets let out their high-pitched chirps, true to their mating rituals, along with the nocturnal insects who created their very own distinctive music.
The night was alive, and yet eerie. It had been a while since a vehicle passed by, and you could say that the solitary walk was getting the better of me.
Turning a bend, I walked up a steep climb and then the road dipped towards the lake. My feet ache and my throat felt parched. My empty stomach didn’t make it any easier for me to think rationally. Thoughts of the stories I’d heard about this part of the highway kept circling in my exhausted mind. Unable to resist these frightful thoughts, I walked ahead, feeling the weight of my weary legs.
‘The old man was right,’ I said to myself, as I huffed and puffed climbing up an uphill path. ‘I should’ve stayed on and waited till the driver found a mechanic and repaired the bus. Oh and the fire! How warm and pleasant it was! The people didn’t seem too bad either, good enough for a few hours’ chat.’
Whatever had got into me that night to have abandoned the safe company of people and to have ventured out all alone into this eerily dark highway. It was certainly my restless, mindless youth! My foolish sense of adventure!
I walked a little swiftly now to gather some warmth inside me. The wind, now suddenly wild and fierce, circled the tall pine and moaned plaintively. The crickets had ceased their chirping and the wild insects fell silent as well.
I had a strong and undeniable feeling that someone was watching me, and in that instant I swiftly turned around.
It was all quiet and still. The wind had stopped moaning and not a leaf or twig stirred. Filled with a wave of horror and dread, I turned and continued to walk, determined to not look back. This was not a place to saunter around in;
this was a place to whizz away from, just as all the cars did. But I could only move as fast as my legs would take me.
And tried as I did, I couldn’t help but recall those strange tales I’d heard all through my growing years. There was the mysterious, unsolved case of my Uncle’s colleague, who driving through this very road one night, vanished into the depths of these forests. They found his car somewhere close to the lake but nothing was ever known or heard about him.
And then there was the story of the two young men who claimed to have met a wandering spirit in these parts, and by sheer good fortune, narrowly escaped from from the doors of death.
Countless drivers have their stories to tell, of a wandering spirit waiting by the side of the lake, in the darkness of the night.
‘Oh, they’re all fools and they imagined it all,’ I tried to convinced myself. ‘There are no spirits, there is no afterlife, once you die, you….’
And here, my thoughts drifted away as I stood and gazed at what lay in front of me. In my troubled state, I hadn’t realised how close I had come to the lake.
It lay glistening enticingly and as though to complement its beauty, the wind dropped to a breeze, the clouds raced away like scampering, mischievous children, and the moon appeared, all full and round.
I knew I had stepped into another world as I watched this magical body of water and the wild grass bordering its silvery edges. I let out a loud, resounding laugh. To think that only a while ago, I was afraid remembering those silly old tales!
The genial weather and the lapping waters of the lake helped dispel my fears, and for all that I felt like a fool and continued to laugh at myself.
I now sat by the edge of the lake, ready to strike a match and enjoy a smoke. But, what was that I heard?
The sound of rustling leaves filled me with dread again. There was a sigh, as though someone breathed long and hard.
Flicking the cigarette far away, I gathered my bag, zipped up my jacket and drew myself away from the water’s edge. Gone was my good humour and my carefree spirit. My fears were beginning to overpower me now and all I hoped for was to make my way into town as swiftly as I could.
I picked up speed and turned another bend. The large, silvery lake continued to flow to my right and to my left, lay an immeasurably dark and silent forest.
Presently, the clouds reappeared, racing wildly across the sky. The moon slid behind these clouds and the world was plunged into a blinding darkness. Groping my way in the dark, I made slow progress. Each step was an enormous effort and from all sides I felt the unspoken threat of the unknown.
Needless to say, I felt utterly miserable, but a feeble sense of hope still got me going. I knew the stretch with the lake beside me wasn’t too long and once I had crossed the long bridge, I would be closer to the town. Also, I was certain to find a police station only a few miles away.
As I walked briskly, with my hands deep inside my pockets, the wind came riding over the lapping waters of the lake, stirring it to restlessness. I thought of the sigh I had heard and wondered if it was only my imagination, hearing sighs I shouldn’t be hearing.
It could be the aching hunger that by now was gnawing at my stomach. My senses were playing tricks on me. But, of course! There are no such things as spirits or hauntings. ‘All tales, I tell you!’ I shouted out into the night. ‘All silly old tales!’
I laughed to myself and wondered when I would be home, warmly tucked inside my bed, after a delicious meal cooked by granny.
I knew granny would be waiting for me, peering outside the window, squinting her small, tender eyes and impatiently walking the length of the front
room. The thought of granny and a fresh, aromatic meal awaiting me brought me some measure of relief. Strengthened by her pleasant memory, I momentarily forgot about the deep sigh that had come with the rustling leaves.
And as I walked I drew my mind towards more pleasant thoughts. It was many months since I had been home and it thrilled me to think of the things I would do and the favourite haunts I would visit.
Visiting the peak with the breathtaking, expansive view of the town was first on my list. How many times had I climbed up that hill with friends and how many times just by myself? Yes, that would be the first to visit and I would thirstily gulp down that sweet milk tea from one of those makeshift tea stalls,
and gorge on those dumplings that lay enticingly huddled together inside those eternal steaming vessels. How I had missed those dumplings and how I wished…
Here my thoughts were interrupted by the familiar sound of rumbling wheels. My heart leaped with joy thinking it was the broken down bus that was well repaired and moving again. But, as I gained a clearer view, I realised it was not the bus but an enormous old-fashioned jeep. The heavy, intimidating vehicle rattled its way through the uneven path and pulled itself close to where I stood.
‘Hello, young man!’ came a voice from inside.
Drawing myself closer, I peered inside and then my anxious face broke into a smile.
‘Uncle Ranju!’ I exclaimed, joyously.
And Uncle Ranju it was, the town’s favourite old bachelor, and our very own family doctor as well, appearing all flushed and blissfully intoxicated.
It was intoxication enough for me to bump into this merry soul on a barren, lonesome highway.
‘What are you doing here all by yourself?’ asked the good old doctor as I scrambled into the front seat.
‘Oh, don’t ask, Uncle! A case of thirst for adventure and foolishness.’
‘Ah! Adventures are never foolish, young man! Remember, without them, there would be no stories.’
I nodded in agreement, knowing that Uncle Ranju always made a grand companion.
I looked at him for a while as he whistled and drove past the wide, enchanting lake. Living all by himself in a considerably large bungalow, in the company of a cook and a devoted helper, had made him into a carefree and fun-loving bachelor. He never married, and never showed signs of longing for a lover or companion. Although, his name did get entangled with a young nurse he had once hired for his clinic, and found its way into the town’s gossip a few months ago. However, all rumours were hushed when the nurse ran away with a young mechanic.
Was Uncle Ranju heartbroken, I wondered. Was he really in love with the nurse?
It didn’t seem so as he drove blissfully, and now and again looked at me and grinned in his usual, cheerful manner.
‘What are you thinking about? You’ve always been the thoughtful kinds,’ he said, slapping me on the shoulders.
We were on the bridge now, riding smoothly over the lake.
‘Nothing,’ I said, with a chuckle. ‘I was only thinking about you.’
‘About me? Now, what is there to think about a happy, old bachelor, and besides…’
His words hung in the air as he slowed down and glared at something in front of him.
Following his gaze, I found something flickering in the distance, and as we drew closer the vague, dim flicker took on the form of a figure; the figure of a woman with long flowing hair. She was dressed in a strange, quaint dress, and her hair was long and raven black. She stood facing the lake, her back towards us.
‘Uncle Ranju,’ I said, my heart pounding wildly inside me. ‘Don’t stop the car, please. Please, Uncle, drive past her. It’s ….it’s…the wandering spirit that everyone speaks of.’
‘What? Are you out of your mind? Do you really believe in those old wives’ tales? What if she is in need of something?’
‘Uncle! For God’s sake, don’t stop!’
‘Oh come on!’ he chided, and pulled the car right beside her.
A chill wind swept over us as soon as Uncle Ranju halted the car. All this while, the girl hadn’t moved an inch, although I was certain she would have heard the rumble of the engine. The wind stirred her hair and her slender, long fingers clutched at the fine, soft material of her dress that fell so low to the ground that it covered her feet. There was something singularly peculiar about her and I felt my stomach churn as she made to turn towards us.
I couldn’t bring myself to look at her face, half-expecting to see the face of the very devil or perhaps a witch with evil eyes and sinister, sharp teeth ready to dig into our skin.
But I only heard Uncle Ranju whisper to me, ‘Oh my! She is an angel! Just look at her!’
Trusting his word, I opened my eyes and was startled out of my wits. She was unbelievably beautiful, far from what I had imagined. Yes, it was true, she had the face of an angel. But wasn’t the devil shrewd enough to put on an angelic disguise, and waylay trusting travellers like us? I felt that same sense of dread and horror come over me again.
‘Un….Uncle Ranju, don’t let your eyes deceive you. Don’t say a word, start the engine and let us be off. It is a spirit, I’m telling you…’
But he cut me short with a show of annoyance and in a moment was out of the jeep.
I couldn’t believe it! Yes, I’d known from granny that Uncle Ranju had a soft corner for the fairer sex, but this was taking things too far!
I sat there, stunned and horrified, and the next thing I saw was Uncle Ranju drawing closer to her and picking up a conversation.
‘Hello, young lady!’ he greeted in his characteristic way, extending a friendly hand.
She didn’t seem to care much for the hand and ignoring his greeting looked him up from head to toe. There was something simmering in her mind, something odd and peculiar. And the next moment, she smiled. It wasn’t a pleasant smile at all, but heavily and darkly restrained.
A feeling of repulsion swept over me, and I desperately wished for Uncle Ranju to come back to his senses and scramble back into the car.
But he was far from sensible that night, and much smitten by her beauty. He insisted and asked again:
‘Can we help get you home? Would you like a ride? It’s an old fashioned jeep, you know. Had once belonged to my father but it is trustworthy,’ he laughed, a trifle nervously.
She glared at him again, her dark eyes gleaming menacingly. There was an unfamiliar, mystifying light in her eyes. I knew it then that it was not the light that belonged to us mortals; it was a light that came from the depths of the unknown.
And all of a sudden, she spoke.
‘Yes,’ she said, in a voice that sounded at once dreadful and intriguing. ‘You could drop me in the village close by.’
The voice, just as that curious light in her eyes, didn’t seem to belong to the world of mortals. It was deep, measured and even threatening. I was startled that Uncle Ranju hadn’t noticed it at all!
And all over her ravishing face was a frightful expression of sneer and contempt. Perhaps, Uncle Ranju mistook it all for snobbery, and humoured her in his guileless, innocent way.
‘Come, now, young lady, don’t look at us as though we are out to harm you! I will drop you right up to your doorstep, safe and sound. You can take my gentleman’s word for that.’
She smiled, and what a dark and disquieting smile it was! I felt the urge to climb out of the car and run for my life, but how could I desert Uncle Ranju? Not when he had embarked on such a dangerous adventure! For better or for worse, we were in it together. My only hope was to continue to go along the highway, for by now the street lights had appeared and the lake and the eerie darkness was left far behind us.
But, in a while, all my hopes were shattered when the unearthly voice from behind said, ‘Take the path to the left. My home is close to the forest.’
Uncle Ranju did as he was told. Already he was a slave to this alluring creature and I looked on frightfully as we left the glowing world of the street lights and entered a bleak, unworldly path that snaked its way into the depths of a thick forest.
Enormous, ominous-looking trees closed in all around us as we drove on towards an unknown universe.
Who would live in such a place, I wondered with a sense of growing dread.
Uncle Ranju appeared unaffected by it all. He whistled cheerily and asked boldly:
‘So, young lady, you live in quite a mysterious place. You must be friends with all the wild animals here.’ He let out a full-throated laugh.
But the creature at the back seat was in no mood for good humour.
‘They wouldn’t make friends with me,’ she hissed, her voice dropping to a low whisper.
I had heard of vampires, of enticing-looking women digging their teeth into human flesh, somewhere close to the throat. I felt the area around my throat and covered it with my hands.
In that instant, the ravishing creature began to laugh. I can’t begin to explain how frightful, how bone-chilling was the sound of that laugh. For the life of me, I wished Uncle Ranju would give up this expedition and reverse the car right back to the road.
Much to my relief, he appeared shaken by the sudden, sinister laugh as well. And at a slow, steady pace we made progress towards our unknown destination. It seemed to me as though the vehicle was as hesitant to plunge into the depths of the unfamiliar forest as we were. Slowly, it trudged along, the engine rumbling and moaning through the grim, forbidding path.
Around us, the cluster of trees grew thick and dense, and save for the headlights of the jeep, it was eerily dark.
Presently, we reached a clearing and I was relieved to see the moon emerge from the clouds. Up ahead in the distance, on a small hill, stood a large, rambling house beneath a broad, limitless sky. The moon was now only partially visible, as the wandering clouds slowly drifted away.
The forest was extraordinarily dark and alive with mysterious sounds that could be the call of wild creatures or the monstrous trees stretching their arms far and wide.
The path appeared to have ended, disappearing into the forest and I trembled all over when Uncle Ranju stopped the jeep.
The enticing creature climbed out from the back and stood in front of Uncle Ranju who was waiting outside, too courteous to not bid her a decent farewell.
‘Won’t you come in,’ she invited, with a wicked smile, her eyes glowing with that same devilish light.
‘Ummm…no…no… I think we’d rather hurry back. After all, it’s getting quite late,’ stammered Uncle Ranju.
‘Really?’ Here she laughed again and I felt the ground tremble beneath us. I stood close to my side of the door, ready to defend Uncle Ranju if the situation turned threatening.
But she only continued to laugh in her uncanny, menacing way; her laughter ringing through the forest.
‘And I thought you promised to drop me till my doorstep,’ said the ungodly creature, her eyes heavy with the hint of evil. ‘But I suppose gentlemen never keep their word!’
She shrugged her shoulders and turned away from us to vanish into the forest.
‘Wait! Wait!’ called Uncle Ranju.
I could see how well she had taunted and provoked him. In a flash, Uncle Ranju had plunged himself into the depths of the forest. And, what else could I do but follow him.
‘Wait, Uncle! Wait for me,’ I cried out. But his pride had got the better of him and he was blindly rushing away into the darkness. At last, I fell in step with him and in the partial light of the moon, I begged and implored him to let go of his foolish pride and return back to the safety of the highway.
But he only waved me aside and hastened into the maze of trees and bushes.
Meanwhile, the enticing creature was nowhere to be seen. It was also too dark to see at a distance.
‘We must get to that bungalow on the hill,’ he said, under his breath. ‘She must be familiar with the path and gone way ahead of us.’
‘But, Uncle Ranju, don’t you see? She is not like us….she is…’
‘What? Humbug! She is like the rest of us, only a little mischievous,’ he said, with an anxious laugh.
‘But Uncle Ranju, I beg you…
Here I cut my words short for he was glaring straight in front of him, his mouth wide open. The moon had come full on, casting its brilliant light over the forest. I looked in the same direction and was startled to see our beautiful friend, her figure awash in the moonlight. How sensuous and appealing she appeared in those silver beams, the shadows of the ancient trees flickering
all over her slender figure. And in that moment there was no hint of evil in her. She turned and smiled at us, beckoning us towards her path, and like obedient servants, we did as we were told, dazed by her unearthly beauty.
Yes, it was all old wives’ tales, I thought to myself, as we followed her. How wicked were those gossipers! Making up stories about this dazzling girl whose only fault lay in her love of wandering around the lake and this dark forest.
Time passed swiftly as we followed her at a distance. She was much too quick for us and seemed to be sailing across at perfect ease. In that moment, a strong gust of wind blew right across the forest, bringing to life the leaves and twigs and the strangely shaped bushes that quivered and trembled in a frenzy. Ahead of us, she walked easily and just then, the wind stirred her long, thick hair this way and that.
It was then that we saw her figure in the bright moonlight, her hair blown wildly by the wind. A cold hand seemed to seize at my heart, and Uncle Ranju had stopped and stood still in a freezing terror too, for we saw right through that diabolical figure. As her wildly flowing hair revealed, she had no back and through her phantom body we saw the outline of the hill and the rambling bungalow perched on it. And at one point, she glided up and floated in the air, her shadowy figure landing over the hill top in the blink of an eye.
All went still and quiet, and beside me Uncle Ranju began to tremble violently. He appeared to have a dangerous fit of sorts. Before I could have one last look at the phantom, Uncle Ranju had collapsed on the ground, shaking
and twitching in his fright. And that same haunting, spine-chilling laugh echoed from the hill top, right across the forest.
I felt my blood run cold, and it took all my strength to drag Uncle Ranju away from that dreadful forest. He was much too heavy for me to carry him, and now I saw, with a sickening, desperate feeling inside me, that the spirit was gliding down the hill again, her maddening laughter ringing louder and louder.
I felt at the grip of a tremendous panic, and with the last reserves of my strength and will, I continued to drag Uncle Ranju out of the forest.
The phantom drew closer and closer to us, gliding in the air. I wasn’t going too far in dragging Uncle Ranju who had by now lost all control of his hands and limbs.
Oh God….Oh God…
I looked up to the skies and prayed fervently, not knowing what else to do, for I had nearly lost all hope.
Uncle Ranju appeared to have composed himself a little, and finding some strength, through his clenched teeth, he mumbled: ‘Run….Run…leave me..’
‘No, Uncle Ranju, I can’t ….and I won’t…’
The wild, menacing laugh rang through the darkness again, and I knew, with a sinking heart, that our end was near. And in that instant, out of nowhere, came the sound of shuffling feet and resounding voices. The sinister laugh fell quiet, and the air bristled with feverish activity. Soon we were able to see the glimmer of little dots of light and the sound of faint voices filling the air.
‘Roop! Roop!’ called out a familiar voice.
‘Grandma!’ The very sound of her voice renewed my weak, trembling body and I sprang to my feet. Uncle Ranju, with the strength of renewed hope, made an attempt to sit up as well.
In a moment a large group of people with fire torches in their hands approached us. I was immeasurably glad to see grandma leading the party.
‘Grandma!’ I exclaimed, holding her close. ‘How did you…’
‘I was very anxious about you and looking out of the window every other minute to see if you were back. And when the bus that you were supposed to be traveling on sped by our house, I wondered why you hadn’t got down at your usual stop. Then, in a while, one of the passengers of the bus came to inform me that you had decided to walk up the highway. At first, we went up to Ranju’s home, hoping that we could drive up to the highway in his jeep, but the cook informed us that he was traveling himself, and expected to reach home only late in the night. I put two and two together and again wondered why you hadn’t bumped into Ranju on the highway. And then, I didn’t have
the heart to wait any longer. We gathered a search party and one of us noticed the marks of Raju’s tyres by the side of the road, the one that led to this forest path. And here we are. I presume we are right on time.’
‘You…you…couldn’t have made it at a bet….better time,’ stammered Uncle Ranju.
A few of our good friends lent a helping hand to Uncle Ranju who managed to limp his way across the forest. As we approached the edge, I looked back. The house on the hill stood still and solemn. The clouds had drifted away and the forest, in its quiet innocence, appeared not to have seen or heard anything at all.
With that inexplicable sense of panic still surging inside me, I looked around for a sign of that wicked, alluring phantom, but she had vanished into the depths of the darkness.
‘Old wives’ tales,’ said Uncle Ranju, as he trudged along the path. ‘Always believe in old wives’ tales.’
He let out a nervous laugh, and as though in answer, that ominous, terrifying laugh resounded in the air again.
Grandma’s grip tightened around my arms, and without a word, we hurried towards the vehicles parked by the side of the path.
One by one, we clambered into our seats and sped away as fast as we could. And out in the open highway, beneath the street lights, we breathed freely at last.
‘Did you see her?’ asked one of the familiars.
‘Yes, we did,’ I answered, still looking at the rear view mirror and the rapidly receding path that lay empty and barren.
‘How fortunate,’ said the familiar, shaking his head from side to side. ‘In all my years of driving through this highway, I never caught a glimpse of her. How very fortunate!’
I smiled faintly and grew silent.
‘But, you know something about this spirit, don’t you?’ said another familiar.
‘What?’ said Uncle Ranju, his eyes betraying his fears.
‘That once she takes a fancy to someone, she doesn’t let go, till she…’
‘Oh! Utter rubbish!’ Broke in grandma, ‘it is enough that we have come away, and as long as we maintain a respectful distance, we will be just fine.’
But Uncle Ranju did not look convinced. He continued to gaze out of his window, the long and winding shadows of trees dancing across his face. And
so he remained through the drive, clasping his hands together, trying to keep them from trembling.