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Neel's Stories

 

The Latecomer

The Haunted

 

 

 

The Latecomer

Again came the New Year eve for which we longed from the very first day of January each year. That year I was hosting our New Year Party. I vividly remembered our last year’s rendezvous. Asim hosted the party and he called us at his apartment in Delhi. It was a wonderful night – the night sky was clear and from the balcony we could see many constellations up there, with the winter chill adding a magnificent dazzle to the stars. As usual, we waited for Rohit, emptying our coffee mugs. He was the ‘latecomer’; he had been so since the school days. He had grown up to become a reputed eye surgeon based in Los Angeles. But the latecomer had not changed at all. Asim practised law in Delhi. He was a criminal lawyer. Karan was in Bombay. He had become a freelance architect. Nikhil was still in Calcutta, taking good care of his father’s publishing firm. As for me, my unpredictability turned me into a writer. In spite of the difference in our professions, we all had one thing in common. We esteemed our friendship and we all preferred to spend one evening together to sing an ode to all those bygone days. Every year one of us would host the New Year party at his preferred location and we would get together.

I was comfortably seated upon a corner chair of the table at the small but lively restaurant along the river Ganges. While I looked at the placard placed upon the table saying ‘Reserved’, I could hear the waves beating close to the walls. The sky was clear and with the same old constellations giving me company. I was just going to order my first cup of coffee when Asim entered the restaurant. A smile lit up his face when he saw me waving at him.

“How’s life?” he said settling down upon the chair just opposite to me.

“As good as it gets.”

We exchanged another smile.

“It’s not so cold over here as it is in Delhi. I barely need my half-sweater over here.”

“Oh yes! I can understand from our last year’s experience. Remember Nikhil’s winter-costume.”

We laughed our hearts out over how Nikhil covered himself to keep himself warm at Asim’s place last year. He had put on a full shirt, a half sweater over it and finally, a shawl over it. Then he had put on a monkey-cap on his head that covered his ears, a pair of gloves in his hands and a pair of strange long socks in his feet. He looked like a snowman.

While we were sipping coffee, Karan stepped in. He was wearing the usual trendy clothes. He was the icon of Modernism, always in pace with time.

“I don’t need to tell you how anxiously I waited to see your faces again,” he said settling down by Asim.

We all shook hands with him.

“Well I don’t think I could wait for others to come before I could break the news.”

We raised our eyebrows expectantly.

“Guess what? I got even with Ruby. And we are getting married in February.”

“That’s great!” we both exclaimed. Ruby was Karan’s second girlfriend. They broke up few years back. He had three more affairs after that! And we still had doubts if they really would settle down. We knew Karan perhaps more than what Ruby did. His indecisiveness was not new to us.

“Well you can never wish for a better new year,” Asim said with a smile.

“So how you guys are doing?” he said lighting a cigarette.

“Pretty fine. Same old song of life.”

“I have a copy of your new book. I read the review in some newspaper. It sounded good.”

“Thanks, buddy.”

“But you see, I couldn’t actually get myself to sit down and read it”, he said taking a long puff.

Asim looked at me and smiled.

“I do hope Ruby brings the best out of you”, Asim said smiling at him.

“Whoa! Look who’s here,” Karan said looking at the door.

Nikhil walked in and looked around for us. Karan rose and went to receive him.

In all groups, there are few who have to bear little leg pulling time and again. It is just because they are very naïve in spite of their age. Nikhil was one such specimen in our group. But he was quite intimate with Karan. But even Nikhil did not get much excited over Ruby’s news.

“Well, there is one good news”, I said smiling.

“Tell me you are getting married,” Karan said rubbing his hands.

“Hold on,” I chuckled, “It is not about me.”

“Then what?” he said making a silly face.

“I think Nikhil should tell you.”

Nikhil looked up at me from his cup of coffee.

“What is that?”

“Oh! You have not given them the good news.”

“What?”

I looked from face to face blankly.

“It seems I need to break it to you all. Nikhil is the proud father of a pretty baby girl!”

Instead of congratulating him, Asim and Karan laughed out aloud.

Nikhil tried to hide his embarrassment by concentrating in finishing the coffee.

“Well, you see I was waiting for Rohit.”

“Ok, ok. Well, you should have called us up. It is really a great news,” Karan said.

“How’s Mr. Latecomer anyway?” Asim asked.

“I spoke to him over phone last week,” I said, “He was doing fine but always had a hectic schedule. Madeline takes good care of him. And you know what?”

They all looked attentively.

“She’s expecting too!”

“That’s great.”

“She wanted to join us here too. But you know Rohit doesn’t want to bring her in this condition. Perhaps we get to meet both the mother and the child next year.”

“We had a shower of great news this time.”

“Oh yeah! But I expected some from you two,” Karan said looking at Asim and me.

“Do something, guys. Don’t waste life like that,” preached Karan.

“Don’t worry, buddy, we will… soon.”

When we finished out third cup of coffee it was quarter to ten.

“Hey, I need to put something in my stomach. I can’t wait for eternity,” Karan said.

“He should be here by now. We can order the starters at least,” Asim said.

The starters came but there was no sign of Rohit. It was nothing new of him and we all were too hungry.

“I am still wondering how you find this place in Calcutta. I never knew such a fine place exists,” Nikhil said as he was having the sumptuous kababs.

“Am I late?”

We all looked up from our plates. Rohit was standing there.

“No, sir. Rather before time because I was just going to eat up your portion too,” Karan said.

We all laughed as he settled down beside Nikhil.

“Congrats in advance for the baby,” Nikhil said.

He smiled at us. In spite of the tiring journey, he was in the best of his moods. He laughed like a child as we exchanged news about each one of us.

After Rohit’s arrival, various dishes started passing our table. We ordered the main course around 11:00PM. Through the window, I could see the bright moon reflecting upon the waves, throwing a shimmer in black and white over the irregularities of water.

While having desserts, we chose Karan to be the next host. And we all expressed our desire that he should have married Ruby by that time. At least, someone reliable would be there to choose a place for our rendezvous!

I just finished my ice cream, when I found Rohit drawing my attention to him. I leaned my head to listen.

“I am not staying for the night this time. Have my flight in an hour. Can you drop me at the Airport?”

“Sure,” I smiled back.

He relaxed back in his chair.

Soon it struck midnight. We wished each other another memorable new year. Karan insisted on staying for some more time but we had to part as Rohit had to catch his flight.

“Don’t expect me to listen to your garbage next year. You’ve got to stay at my place for few days.”

Rohit smiled back at Karan and said, “Will try my best.”

All of us went our own way one by one, back to the old humdrum of city life.

I drove through the dark night with Rohit. There was hardly any traffic at that time of the night. Occasionally some revellers would pass by.

“How’s Madeline?”

“Pretty fine. She’s more radiant after getting pregnant. I wish I could spend more time with her.”

“I can understand. But it does become hard at times to strike a balance between your work and family.”

Rohit was silent.

“I think you should take some days off after she delivers the baby.”

I pulled up at the main entrance of the Airport.

“You better go home. It’s pretty late.”

In spite of my insisting to see him off, he would not let me stay.

We hugged each other and parted for another year. He kept waving at me as he walked inside.

The heavy meal and the excitement of the day had worn me out and after reaching home, I could barely change my clothes before falling dead sleep.

I was shaken up in my bed by the ring of the telephone. I glanced at the clock. It was 3:30AM. I picked up the receiver.

“Hallo!”

There was no answer at the other end.

I repeated the sleepy ‘Hallo’.

The line disconnected.

I put the receiver down cursing the tipsy reveller.

I barely closed my eyes when it rang again.

I picked up the receiver again and before I could utter a word, there was a feminine voice on the other end.

“Hallo!”

“Hallo!” I replied, shaking my sleepy mind in order to match the voice with the familiar ones.

“I’m sorry the line went dead last time.”

“Hi Madeline! How you doing?” I interrupted as I identified the voice.

“I am sorry I should have called you up earlier. But it took me sometime to recover.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Rohit had an accident last night on the way to the Airport. He was in coma ever since,” she said with a faltering voice, “he passed away this morning.”

“I hope you folks didn’t cursed your latecomer friend much for his absence,” she burst into tears.

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The Haunted

  It was quite dark by the time the car pulled up before the Check-Post of the sanctuary. The driver hastily cleared the formalities with the security there and we entered the winding road through the old trees. By the light of the headlights, I could make out the thick grasses waving madly as the car brushed passed through them. After some time the road cleared out of the grasses and we could make out the distant lights of the rest house. In the sanctuary, it is not allowed to have street lamps or road lights. The darkness was punctuated by the halo on the road thrown by the lights of the car.

  By the time I was pulling out my haversack, it was pitch dark. I walked into the light of the Reception and blinked few times before getting accustomed to the brightness. It did not take long to go through the formalities and soon I was following an usherer towards a log-hut. In the light of the torch, I could make out a small colony of a dozen huts. They formed two rows of six in each and pairs facing each other. On the extreme end to this colony, the wilderness grew thick. I could make out the trunks of large old trees. To my delight, my usherer walked into a hut at the end of the row. After handing me the keys he returned. I just dropped myself upon the bed staring at the logs on the ceiling. After sometime I closed my eyes. The darkness stirs up the woods and I could clearly hear the myriads of calls. Some long howls while some were melancholy hoots in rapid succession. At times I got aware of the constant buzzing of the swarms of grasshoppers, which soon mingled with the cries from the woods and got lost.

  Suddenly I was shaken off my reverie by a chill. I pulled upon the bed and glanced at the watch. It was past dinnertime and I was not particularly hungry. I shoved myself into the bath and the warm water out of the geyser refreshed me up. I just had some fruits I was carrying with me and went to bed. The long journey had worn me down already and it didn’t pose any trouble to set into an uninterrupted slumber in spite of the ‘fading’ cries of the woods.

   

I got up with a start. I felt I heard a whimper. It was faint and might be the remanence of a dream. Though I hardly ever dream when I am tired. Slowly I pulled myself up and walked to the window. There was a thick fog outside and I could barely make out the outline of the hut opposite. Obscurity invites curiosity. In few minutes I was ready to head out and have a walk into the welcoming synergy of the twilight and the fog.

  Shutting the door behind me, I stepped few paces out into the sideway and looked around for any apparent source to the whimper. There was nothing visible that moved. Though I could make out the slow and calm movement of the fog as it kept passing through. It formed many abstract forms around, sometimes rising and sometimes settling down. It sent a shiver down my spine when I found my steps covered by the moving whiteness, as if I am walking over a cloud. I slowly walked towards the wild side of the colony where the forest grew dark and deep. The large trunks of the trees presented themselves gradually through the fog as I moved closer. The next moment, I found myself covered from the familiar blue of the sky with a canopy of green. The same instant a chill went down my spine with the damp coldness inside the forest. There was a carpet of fallen leaves and dead braches all around. Some trees were covered with a kind of lichen giving an attractive dash brown and white to the usual dull barks. The leaves and grasses under my feet barely made a muffled noise as I stepped along. Along the large and ancient trunks, rose the heavy fog. It looked as if clouds have trodden low and walking by the woods.

  I suddenly recalled the whimper and slowly came out of the mesmerism. There was not a soul to be seen. Nothing moved around except occasional burst of a group of sparrows across the bushes. After searching for some time in vain, I decided to move back and get my camera. Slowly I walked out of the enchanted woods and moved to my hut. As I turned towards the pavement of the hut, the fog settled heavy again across the road and I glanced around to enjoy the gradual blurring of the view across the road. Suddenly my eyes froze me. Across the road, at the opposite hut, I could barely see the outline of one of the windows. It had a white curtain, or perhaps turned white by the opacity of the moving fog and down at the right corner, the tail of the curtain flared in, revealing a pair of glittering eyes.

  I was motionless for a minute or two, till my visibility was hindered by thickening of the fog in front. And when it cleared lazily, the eyes were gone and the curtain covered the inside.

  I could not shake off the effect of those pair of eyes for a long time. It sent me into a sort of reverie and somewhere deep inside I was trying hard to associate them with the whimper that I had heard. With the thoughts reverberating inside, I brought the camera and walked back into the forest to capture the lichens over the trunks. As the sun went up, the fog cleared the view and vividness around. The dews upon the delicate grasses shone like pearls with the exquisite contours. The forest was bustling up with chirps and calls of birds perched high over the trees. I walked through this morning symphony, trying to discover more out of the tranquillity of the woods. I could make out the swift movements up among the leaves and branches. Small groups of feathers and tails, with variety of colours created a symphony high up there. As soon as I snapped again the camera started to rewind. I was surprised how quickly I had finished the entire film-roll. But it had broken my reverie and I was back to the reality. I moved around and found myself surrounded by the trees and bushes. The watch showed me it was forty minutes past eight. I was told the previous night that the restaurant would close their breakfast session by nine. I had got quite an appetite after the refreshing walk and in fact, I haven’t had anything except fruits last night.

  I started walking back or perhaps into. After almost ten minutes of brisk walking I could hear a soft gurgling sound coming out of the woods. Though there was no sound like that while getting into the woods, still I walked towards its origin, expecting a farewell surprise. There, unmistakably, was a stream nearby. I reached a place surrounded by overgrown bushes and trees with no apparent way through them. It looked like a dead end. Instead of plunging myself into the bushes, I took the parallel course, walking along the edge. The more I moved towards the west, the louder the gurgle was heard. There was a sudden movement close to my feet and I jumped back in shock. A grey rabbit ran swiftly, heading towards a safer place. I caught my breath and was happy it was not a reptile. I have heard tales of fateful deaths of men bitten by notorious snakes in these woods, fiery and bad-tempered.

  I caught my trail and moved ahead. Soon the bushes cleared off and I could see the stream flowing though the woods. I took some quick steps and went to the edge of it. The water was clear and sparkled where the rays of the morning sun touched it. There were tiny fishes merrily and nimbly swimming around. The banks were covered with dead leaves and made a soft sound when treaded over. I wished I had carried an extra film-roll with me. The same instant, I got aware of the fact that I had really lost my way back.

  I traced my way back to the bushes where I heard the stream for the first time. This time I walked away from the inviting gurgle, carefully looking for footprints on the ground. To my dismay, there hardly were any. The falling leaves keep covering the remains of the ground below. The walk started wearing me down now. To make it worse, my stomach ached with hunger. The sun had risen high and the woods started to warm up. Though there still was a gentle cool breeze carrying the memoirs of the morning. I looked up into the sky and suddenly something caught my attention. At some distance to the northeast, there was a canopy of tall trees. It reminded me of the morning symphony of the birds and renewed my vigour. While running towards it, I was hoping I was not going deeper into the woods and those were indeed the trees from where I entered the forest. Soon I was right amidst the trees covered by their thick green canopy and to my delight I saw the familiar lichens upon the trunks.

  I traced the way out and marched gallantly on the road to my hut. My watch showed it was quarter to ten. As I stepped over the pavement to my hut, I threw a glance at the eerie window. It donned an innocent façade. What I did not know is that it had already launched the most incredible sequence of events that I was going to experience amidst the mystery of the watchful woods.

  I was fortunate enough to get a cup of tea and some pastries at the restaurant. The attendants were quite helpful and kind. While having the refreshing ‘late-breakfast’ there, I loaded my camera with a new roll of film and tugged a couple in my waist pouch for any unexpected need. One of the attendants was quite fascinated by the 70-300mm lens I was fitting into the camera and stepped close to get a view over my shoulder.

  “Is it a zoom lens?”

  “Yes, sort of”, I smiled back, “what’s your name?”

  “Suraj”.

  “Tell me Suraj, where can I find the grey foxes here?”

  “Oh, they are very fast and it is very difficult to take their photos. But you may find them near the lake.”

  “Where is the lake?”

  He started a fast elaborate description to reach the lake; I soon lost the track of his details.

  “Are there any maps?” I interrupted him.

  “I can draw you one!”

  It was not a bad proposition and I took out a small pad that I always carry. He quickly drew the crisscross mesh of paths and shortcuts to reach the lake.

  “Thanks a lot. I am sure I would need your help again.”

  I got up and offered him to try the camera. He was delighted at this token of gratitude.

  “How many huts are occupied here?” I asked him casually when he handed the camera back.

  “Well, most tourists have left after the holidays. Just three more are occupied.”

  “Which ones?” I asked, suppressing my curiosity.

  “107, 110, 102 and 111 – that’s yours.”

  “112?”

  He looked at me suspiciously. I tried to remain casual.

  “Someone must have left a window open, I saw the curtains fluttering.”

  I felt he did not believe me and I did not wish to spend more time on this matter as of now. I was already thrown into the mystery of the ‘pair of eyes’. I walked out without discussing anything more with Suraj.

  The sun was up high in the sky and warmed up the forest. I decided not to venture deep this time. I had no intention to miss my lunch. Moreover, an afternoon adventure was not at all a bad proposition. I started taking photos of the road in every possible perspective that fascinated me. A young peacock came out of the grasses and trod across the road. It halted right in the middle of the road and inspected the man closing upon it holding a camera. It tossed its head side to side, trying to get more angles than I can possibly get out of my camera. The shutter kept clicking relentlessly. I was sure of capturing few nice portraits of the young fellow. It would have just lasted for half a minute. It quickly turned away and headed to the other side of the road. I pursued it for some distance but it soon disappeared behind the bushes.

  I walked back to the road and looked around. The little settlement was surrounded by the dense forest. The road went ahead to what appeared to be a ‘remain’ of a check post. I moved closer to have a better look. It had a long iron pole laid horizontally as a barrier. Close to its left side was a small cabin, occupied by a sleepy man. There was a table in front of him, with some papers scattered all over and a rather large register at the centre. From that post, the road trailed little more upon the clearing before disappearing into the obscurity of the deep forest. The green canopy looked enchanting from that distance. From time to time, a sudden surprise would nudge the group of birds atop and for some time, they would keep fluttering over the part of the canopy making strange calls. But after some time they would settle down in the trees again and disappear from sight. The forest keeps lot of secrets beyond the conscience of common people and hence, always attracts them.

  After taking couple of photos, I walked back to the settlement. It was close to lunchtime and I thought of taking a bath before heading to the restaurant. The afternoon sun had calmed down the forest. I was thinking of taking a walk to the lake after lunch; but at the same time I had to make sure I could reach back before sunset.

  After reaching the hut, I had a long refreshing shower. I was re-invigorated enough for a long walk across the forest. While putting on the clothes, I slowly stepped close to the front window and peeked out lifting just a small end of the curtain. I could plainly see the hut in front and the familiar window. The curtain hung undisturbed. I stayed for some time staring at the window as if something would surely pop out.

  Nothing popped out, nor moved. It looked so lifeless that I felt what I saw in the morning was just a reverie out of my weariness of the long trip down to the forest.

  I stepped back sighing. I hooked up a waist pouch carrying few film rolls and a knife. Hitching a rucksack, containing the camera, lens and the tripod, upon my shoulders, I stepped out and walked towards the restaurant.

 

I almost overate out of the adventure of the forenoon but was very satiated. I spread the map drawn by Suraj upon the table and concentrated upon it.

  There were two ways to reach the lake. The longer but easier was the main entrance to the woods; that passed through the barrier. And the other was through the wild path that runs down just near the huts; though it was not the way I had taken in the morning. The latter was shorter but dangerous. But on the other hand it had its own advantages. It would keep me away from prying eyes and also my aim to return before sunset would be achieved. I took a closer look at this path. It took the right turn from the way to the huts and ran down a moderate slope into a plateau surrounded by large trees. It was indicated that there is a trodden path that goes straight to the bank of the stream. From there lies a straight path along the stream till it reaches a fall. The lake can be seen from that vantage but one needs to get down to the plain to touch it. Here two ways bifurcate – one that climbs down along the side of the fall, the other takes a trip around the fall and reaches it through the woods down below. This posed me a dilemma. Both the ways were equally precarious and they just differed with the time taken to reach down. In fact, I was not quite sure if the climb down along the fall really took as less a time as it appeared in the map. I decided to trek down the fall lest I should run short of time.

   

I stepped to the counter and bought a pack of biscuits. It was pretty calm outside with the afternoon bright and warm. I slowly took the way to the huts, feeling the leaps of my heart in anticipation of the adventure before me. I took a glance around as I stepped away from the way to the huts and went down the path to the right. For a kilometre or so, the wilderness was not much thick. The trees stood silent and grim in the afternoon sun. Slowly the bushes and trees got thicker and the green canopy hid the sun. It was a pleasant walk under the tender shade of the nature. There was a carpet of leaves and the footsteps barely made a sound while treading over it. There was not much lichen in this part of the forest. The symphony of the birds was subdued at this time of the day. I saw some squirrels busy searching the heaves of leaves around. Even the light tread of my feet over the leaves was enough to set them at alert. One of them paused from his work and raised his paws standing upright to get a better look at me. He turned his head side to side and then resumed his search. I walked on, without any sign of the plateau. I would have walked for another hour or two. The excitement of the adventure subdued the weariness of the walk. I kept treading upon the high and low paths through the woods. The air was fresh in spite of the strong sun of the afternoon. Moreover, the pristine verdure sieved the sunlight into a soft and cool brilliance among the woods. I had already finished half the film roll I had loaded before I started. I paused upon a large root of an old tree. Taking a draught of water, I stared around.

The truth of life laid bare before me. It was the return to my origin. The harmony of the universe was summarized in the virgin forests. It was simply life. There was no fear of death. Death is the simple process of returning to the innocence of the unborn. It was simply the ultimate goal to fuse with the omnipresent force of nature. It is neither the beginning nor the end. It is just a transitory phase between the known and unknown. It was above religion and belief. There life needed no new faith apart from that upon life itself. The continuum of life brightened the road ahead. I was surprised to see that there was no commotion over the truth of life, unlike the life in cities. The trees and animals lived in a symphony of life and never bother about the tomorrow. Their present is the definition of their life and they endeavour to get the most of out it. Why is so much difference in our lives? What makes happiness so difficult for a human to get? Was this life we pondered ever when the ‘intelligence’ detached itself from the simple wilds? I could never find a breathing thing there in the wilds, unlike men, which is so miserably captivated by its own desires. I pitied myself. I pitied my existence. I was just basking in the ephemeral delight of freedom and will soon be back to my golden cage. And soon, I will forget this truth amidst the torments of the city life. Ignorance is bliss?

My thoughts were interrupted by a movement close to my feet. I looked down. About a foot away, a snake swiftly made its way across. Its skin glistened in the sunlight and the diamond patterns over it could be seen vividly. I had no idea whether it was poisonous or not but by impulse, I got frozen by its sight. It would have been over 6 feet long, with a mossy green skin that was adorned by a crisscross diamond pattern in black and pale yellow. It swiftly crawled towards a bush close to the tree I was mounted upon and disappeared out of sight. As soon as it was out of sight, I shook myself up and ran away from the tree. After a dozen yards, I paused and looked back to get a glimpse of the serpent, but in vain.

I went ahead on my way and after some time, I could feel the elevation of the ground I treaded upon. That meant I was already over the plateau. There were lesser trees up there, mostly small plants and bushes. I was stepping carefully lest I should meet another serpent that might be less generous to the intruder. The afternoon sun was not strong and it had a crimson orange reflection upon the tender grasses. There were scattered clouds over the crystal blue sky like some cotton balls thrown up recklessly by some wizard. The gentle breeze was quite refreshing and it helped a lot with my adventure, coping with sweating walk.

A smile brightened my face when a distant gurgle reached my ears. It sounded like a high waterfall getting closer with each step I took. My treads broke into a run. The sound guided me to the edge of the plateau and the green dreamland lay before me.

The plateau was shaped like an E, the arms dropping down in great precipices, the exception being the upper arm. It sloped down slowly down into the valley and that was the way indicated in the map to climb down into the valley. The valley was a beautiful stretch of verdure with dark green patches over it, where the shadows of the clouds dropped upon it. The great plateau guarded the pristine valley like an eternal sentry of nature. From the junction of the body of the plateau and the origin of the inner arm, emerged a great waterfall – roaring in its fury as it dropped down the heights, right into the heart of the valley. There was thick foam around the place it touched the earth, and the water drops lay over it like a heavy fog. Little ahead, where the water got pacified after its great fall, in the lap of the valley, there laid the lake, with its water reflecting the sky above- the purest blue.

I stood spellbound looking at the beauty of nature’s creation. The light of the setting sun shimmered upon the waterfall and every drop sparkled like gold as it went down. I was not the least prepared to face something like this. I never could have imagined such a place to exist in the heart of the ordinary looking woods. But now it looks more natural. That disclosed the reason why I had not encountered any wild animals on my way except the reptile. The valley, guarded by the plateau, provided a safe haven to the fauna. It was the real sanctuary.

I must have already taken a dozen photographs right there. But then a new commotion besieged my mind. My destination was before me but I did not know how to reach it. How am I supposed to reach down into the valley? I had initially made up my mind to climb down along the waterfall but at that time, I did not have the slightest notion that the waterfall would be so great.  Moreover, it was already close to dusk. With many plans hovering in my mind, I started to walk along the edge, moving closer to the waterfall. The dusk painted a divine picture in indigo and vermilion upon the evening sky. Often families of birds would stir upon the trees around and fly around together for sometime, chirping in delight and again settle down.

I soon reached the bank of the stream. It was not deep but the water was swift. I cupped little water in my palm and tasted it. It was cold and fresh. I drank some and then sprinkled upon my face. It was very rejuvenating. Yet I abandoned my plan to climb down the fall. After taking some more shots, I started my walk back. As I moved back into the woods, it got dark and I soon had to put all my trust for a safe return to the torch I was carrying. But the remnants of the evening painted the clouds a bright vermilion and left some illumination in the woods. I started a sprint to reach the hut before nightfall, running down the plateau, jumping over the small bushes that came in my way.  I could feel the trails of sweat running down my spine.

“Run faster, since if you get lost you still have time to make your way home.”

The voice kept reverberating inside my mind, encouraging me to run even faster. But that did not save me from my fate.

After almost running for an hour, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, the fear besieged me that I am not heading the right way. The trees and bushes around me seemed quite unfamiliar. I felt I have not seen them while my journey to the waterfall. I kept turning round and round, trying hard to find a way or trodden path where I could resume my way. Moreover the darkness was making my visibility lesser with each passing moment. Gradually the nightlife of the jungle stirred; I could hear howls and cries of different pitches. I felt uneasy.

Punctuating the darkness, suddenly, I saw a shimmering speck of light in the darkness in the front. The bright yellowish speck looked like that of an electric bulb but I was not sure. With renewed hope, I sprinted ahead towards the light. All the time I hoped not to meet the serpents of the forest again. It was quite dark by that time and I could barely see where my steps fell. Slowly the forest grew thin and I found myself reaching a clearing. To my surprise, the light took the form of a window.

In the darkness I could make out the silhouette of a cottage. I must have wandered to some village. Still, it would be a haven for the night. I could make out a path coming towards the forest. I slowed my pace, breathing heavily. As I walked towards the cottage, I saw some more silhouettes close to the cottage. It was a group of cottages. The path took me around a longer route to the cottage, from one end of the settlement.

As I walked closer, through the darkness, I could see my own cottage to the right, facing the lighted cottage.

Instead of walking into my cottage, I stepped closer to the other cottage, trying to get a glimpse of movement inside. I just wanted to make sure there is someone in. I went close to the window, looking for a slit to peep. Through the edge of the curtain, I saw inside. The furnished room looked untouched. There was nobody inside. The electric bulb was alight. The occasional fluctuations in the power supply made the glow flicker at times. But the light always returned to its normal incandescence. I walked around the cottage, hoping to hear some noise inside. But there was none. Somebody must have left the light on. I walked to the door and checked the lock. It was dark near the door. Somehow the light from inside could not reach out through the little slits around the door. I felt the door with my hands and clasped the lock to make sure it was firmly secured.

“Do you need the keys, sir?” a voice close to my back startled me up.

I turned back to see Suraj standing right behind me.

“Has somebody checked in here?”

“No, why?”

“I saw light inside. Maybe one of you guys left it on.”

“Light!” he looked at me in surprise, “there is no light inside, sir”.

I rushed out of the doorway. I stood spellbound in the lawn, looking blankly at the window. It was dark now. No lights at all.

“That’s strange. I saw light inside a while ago”.

Suraj shrugged his shoulder. He could plainly see my bewilderment. It seemed not a good idea to argue more with him. I was myself at my wit’s end.

I waved him to join me out of the lawn.

“Can you get me some coffee?”

“Sure. Would you like to have something else?”

“Sandwiches.”

He went out of the settlement to the pantry, sometimes turning back to see if I am alright.

As he left, I walked into my cottage and dropped upon the bed. The images from my day shimmered before me, like the discrete frames of a film. The snake crawling close to my feet. The canopy of tall trees closing upon me in the deep forest. The sound of the waterfall. The touch of the clear water of the stream.

Then piercing through the frames came the glitter of the light – my guiding light. I was gliding towards it, involuntarily. I passed through the trees and bushes, moving with great speed. But when I got close to the light, it all burst into a blinding fume. I was wading through it, moving great difficulty. Then it started to clear up. And out of the fumes, I saw a pair of eyes – black as coal. The lids didn’t blink - just kept staring at me - trying to fathom me. I was enchanted by them and was apparently standing still. They moved closer, amidst the fumes making various forms.

To my surprise and awe, suddenly the eyes got covered by long hair, tossing in the fumes.

The knock at the door shook me up. I pulled myself up and opened it.

Suraj was back with the snacks.

He came in and quietly laid them upon the table. As he turned back to the door, he gave a quick glance at my dazed face and left.

I stepped into the bath and splashed some water on my face. The coffee was quite refreshing. I devoured the sandwiches quickly, dreaming of a sumptuous dinner. I must have been pretty hungry. After finishing the short lunch, I arranged my camera and rolls. Then headed for a bath.

It was close to dinnertime when I stepped out of my cottage and walked towards the restaurant. I couldn’t help glancing at the weird cottage. Already I had two strange episodes with it. There it stood innocently in the dark.

The night breeze carried the symphony of various insects performing their usual chores. It was occasionally punctuated by the cries and howls of some distant animals. The path ahead was illuminated by a circle of light thrown by my torch. There were no street lamps lest it should attract animals. I went inside the restaurant quietly and took a seat near a window. There were not many tourists at that time. An elderly couple was sitting next to my table, eating. They had taken an elephant ride into the forest and were talking about it. They also seemed to be upset about not being able to reach their son over phone. Towards the entrance to the restaurant, sat a group of men and women, talking loudly. The restaurant was roaring occasionally with their laughter. They stayed in the dormitory, just next to the restaurant.

After having my dinner, I decided to walk for some time before retiring to bed. It got very quiet outside when the group went back to the dorm and fall asleep. The couple came out in a while and started walked. They talked softly and mostly from what I overheard were about family matters.

After sometime they took the same path as mine and we came face to face.

“How are you liking the place?” I started a conversation with a smile.

“Oh it is very nice,” the gentleman beamed back.

“Did you see any tigers today?”

“No but we saw a leopard. Hope we are luckier tomorrow.”

“Actually we didn’t go far today. I couldn’t take a long elephant ride,” the lady said.

“Maybe you try the jeep tomorrow. It is more comfortable and safe.”

They smiled affirmatively.

“Where are you staying?” the man asked.

“The last cottage in the left wing.”

“We are in the first one from the right wing.”

“Let us keep walking or the mosquitoes will get us dry,” the lady smiled.

We slowly started walking towards the settlement.

“Did you notice anything strange in the last cottage of your wing?” I couldn’t help asking them.

They looked at each other and then stared at me.

“No,” the man said, “nothing at all.”

They entered their cottage and walked towards mine.

Before I closed the door, I glanced at the haunted cottage. There was nothing unusual about it. Maybe I am working up my mind too much. Might be some sort of hallucination. Hoped the stream-water was not contaminated.

I went to bed and fall asleep quickly.

My sleep was broken by a soft knock at my door. I pulled myself up. It was again a misty morning outside.

I opened the door and quite unexpectedly saw the elderly lady with whom I talked last night. She looked at me gravely.

“Sorry to disturb you. Was coming back from a walk. I thought maybe you should know this.”

I kept staring at her, being quite dazed with the pace of events happening around me.

“The cottage is haunted.”

She glanced behind her shoulders, trying to make sure there is nobody around.

“My husband doesn’t want us to discuss this with anyone. But I felt you are troubled. Just like we are. If you see anything more, just ignore it. Don’t let it weigh upon your heart or you will go mad.”

She turned to leave in haste.

“How do you know it is haunted?” I uttered the first question that hit me at that instant.

“We stayed there!”

She was gone.

I slammed the door behind me, recovering from the shock.

After ordering the morning coffee, I kept pacing up and down the room.

It seemed a very unlikely place for ghosts. The cottages were not older than few decades, rather less time for the making of a ghost. Besides, the ghost kept ‘herself’ within the house. As if she is afraid. There was something very unusual about the whole affair.

The hot coffee freshened me up a lot. I made my mind to talk to the lady. Maybe there is more in store for me to learn.

After breakfast, I went out for an elephant ride.

 I was stuffed with some of the youngsters from the group. It was a jostling scene with some of the girls shrieking at the top of their voice when the elephant swayed perilously. We rode through the path into the deep forest. The canopy of verdure made a soothing umbrella upon us. A cheer ran among the group when we spotted a group of leopards. There were three cubs with their mother. Though it was not difficult for the leopard to jump upon the elephant and attack us, but it kept away from the mess. Besides I was sure it was not prepared to face the yells of the girls. The mahouts didn’t take the elephants too deep inside for the forest. The animals might be more desperate around their territory. When we were turning back, I noticed a guarded jeep carrying few new tourists along with the elderly couple. I just hoped to steal some time with the lady alone. I spent a long time finishing cups of coffee, procrastinating my lunch. But when my hunger overtook my curiosity I ordered the lunch. The food was served soon and was sumptuous. It didn’t take long for me to finish it. Giving up hope to see them, I headed towards my cottage. As soon as I took turn through the settlement gate, I was the lady walking up. She was alone.

 “I wanted to talk to you.”

 “I thought so. You would ask for more details. Well, it would be better if we walk a bit. My husband has headache and I have to get some medicines.”

 I nodded and joined her.

 We walked quietly for a long time. The chemist shop was on the other end of the settlement, to the northeast of the check post. There were the quarters for the park staff along with it.

  “We stayed in that cottage for two nights and then we couldn’t take any longer,” she broke the silence.

  “How did you know it was haunted?”

  “In fact, initially we didn’t believe it was haunted. Always kept thinking it was the mischief of some stray cat or some wild animal.”

  “The movements of the curtains, the unlocking of locked doors, the shaking of the bed as if someone just knocked down by it. It culminated in the second day.”

  “I woke up to find the curtain moved off the windows. And there laid a thick mist outside early morning. It looked so calm outside. I left the bed and stepped slowly towards the window. As my vision got sharper, I found there is something shaped up by the curtain. My first intention was to call my husband, but there was a strange attraction that my feet didn’t stop. I kept walking closer.”

  “I felt as if the mist has permeated through the window glasses and filled up the curtains. Slowly, it looked like a female form bending over the window, looking out. The knees were bend and her hands were wrapped around them. Her hair was dishevelled.”

  I was trying to form the image as she described and found any similarity with the woman of the dream.

  “I can’t describe it well. Her form was just like the mist – milky white vapour, kept disintegrating at places and reforming. She was nothing more than a cloud but looked like a woman.”

  “She must have seen me by the corner of her eyes. She turned her head and looked deep in my eyes, starting an eerie shiver down my spine. To my surprise, she slowly stretched her hand towards me and parted her lips to say something.”

“Then?” I couldn’t help my curiosity.

  “I heard my husband say something behind me. I turned my head back towards him for a moment and when I turned back to her again, there was nothing.”

  “I stepped quickly towards the window and looked out. There was no remnant of the vision and the mist was clearing slowly.”

  “What’s wrong with you?” my husband said as he stepped up to me.

  I could not utter a word for sometime. The event was so sudden and unexplainable.

  When I told my husband about it in details, he decided to shift to another room. After all, we were there for a short vacation and to relax. Those events were jarring our nerves.

  After finishing her weird tale, she went back to the cottage and I decided to talk to the resident people there about the spirit.

  After a tiring hour I couldn’t extract any positive response. Nobody seems to know anything about it. As it got close to dusk, I thought of having a cup of coffee at the restaurant.

  There was Suraj alone there. When he brought coffee for me, I popped the question.

  “Have you ever seen anything strange in the last cottage?”

  “No, he remarked gravely, “never!”

  He left without any word. His sudden departure made me suspicious. The same moment, I also recalled his presence when I was taking a peek in that cottage.

 The eerie darkness and the mystery of the spirit made me inquisitive. Besides I was supposed to leave the next day. There was a desperation building up within me. I gulped the rest of the coffee at once and left hurriedly towards my cottage.

 On my way, I stopped at the store and bought a film roll of 400 ISO for taking photographs in dark. As the dusk got darker, it ushered the chill of the night. I hurried to my cottage and started preparing for my inquest. I shoved the Swiss-knife, the pencil-torch and the camera into my backpack. Then ordered the dinner.

After around twenty minutes, Suraj came in with the dinner. As he entered, he looked around with keen eyes. The backpack was lying, innocently, right on the bed but I was sure he couldn’t guess what was inside.

He quietly left the food upon the table and turned around, holding the empty tray.

“Will you be leaving tomorrow?”

“Or you plan to stay longer?” he added after a short pause.

I looked right in his eyes.

“Will leave tomorrow.”

“Hope you enjoyed your stay.”

“I did.”

I slowly added, “Except the intriguing episode of that cottage. I don’t like mystery.”

He smiled pathetically, an expression I couldn’t decipher.

Then he left.

I heard his heavy and slow footsteps fading gradually.

I started having the dinner. As I pulled the plate off the tray, something dropped on the floor with a clang.

I bent down and picked it up. It was a key. It looked innocent except that the edges were unusually dirty as if nobody has used it for a long time.

A half smile escaped the corner of my lips and I silently thanked Suraj.

 

It was past midnight when I shut my cottage from inside and turned off the lights. I gently pulled up the window and slid out. It was pitch dark outside and I could barely make out the silhouettes of the bushes and the plants across the lawn. Gradually my eyes got accustomed to the darkness. I slowly stepped out on the path and stood facing the cottage opposite. It stood silent and innocent, but in its heart kept the mystery buried. The stretch of the path leading out of the settlement lay bare before me. There was no soul around. The unceasing symphony of insects gave company to my slow breaths in the lone of the night. Slowly striding across I reached the doorstep of the cottage and paused to fetch out the key. It slipped smoothly inside the lock and unlocked it with a soft click. A strong smell of damp carpet hit me. It must have not been opened for sometime. I shut the door behind me and waited for my eyes to get used to the dark indoor.

The moonlight through the openings in the curtain bathed the room in a soft bluish gleam. There was a pungent odour of the damp carpet. The room appeared similar to the one I stayed in. The bed sheet had no crumples. The bathroom door was left half opened to reveal a dark inside. I strode slowly towards the window and parted the curtains to check if the windows were locked. A cold wind swept inside through the slits in the windows. They didn’t move and were locked well. I stepped back and laid my bag on the carpet. Then I straightened up the tripod and fixed the camera over it. Keeping in mind the lady’s story, I headed it towards the window. I settled myself upon the floor close to the tripod and waited for something to happen. I could hear the usual unceasing calls of the wilds from the deep woods. They gave me company over the hours. My patient watch bore no fruit till dawn. My eyes were too heavy to keep them opened. All I could see were some blue and grey silhouettes across the room. I wrapped my hands around me and tried to make myself warmer. The calls started fading from my ears. All I heard were some rustles around me.

In my subconscious, I felt these rustles chilling me to the bones. Slowly the silhouettes across the room started taking different shapes. They started to form a strange cover and tried to float over me. I sensed complacency around me as those covers draped over me. My eyelids half-opened to say farewell to my conscious; I felt an apparition at the corner of my eye. I put on an effort to open them wide and sat awake with disbelief.

Close to the edge of the bed, where I sat leaning on it upon the floor, clasping a pillow between her hands and her chest, a little girl sat upon the bed. Her body was ethereal, as her form kept changing. It seemed someone is try to put the ether together to form her but it kept moving apart. Her eyes were like two dark pearls embedded in a foamy cloud, with forms of bright hair floating gracefully around her head. She looked sadly towards me without a word. The lips were parted lightly as if she wished to speak but had immense pain.  I slowly stretched my hand towards her. But my hand felt a strange shiver deep inside. Suddenly the whole apparition burst apart and struck me like a strong gust of wind. I felt like falling down the deep waterfall with immense speed. My body turned and twisted through the never-ending fall through the water, finally dropping amidst a great roar. Then it all went silent.

 

The first rays of the morning sun shook me awake. It was around 6 o’clock. There was a heavy mist outside and the sunshine lasted for few moments inside the room. Pulling myself up, I glanced around. The tripod laid flat upon the carpet, with the camera still affixed atop. I didn’t remember when it dropped down. Consciousness gradually deluged my mind and I hastily gathered the tripod and the camera, arranged them back into the bag. As I took a final look inside from the door, it all looked pristine. The pillow was at the normal place and the sheet still laid without any crumples. I ran out without any pause.

A loud knock woke me up. I must have been sleeping very deep. I dragged myself to the door and opened it. Suraj was standing there with a cup of tea.

 I stood out of his way and he laid the cup on the table.

 

“When are you leaving?”

 “Around 3 pm”

 He nodded and left.

 The tea was hot and refreshing. I dropped on the bed and sat pondering over the last night’s episode. It had thrown my mind in great turmoil. After reaching my cottage last night, I threw open the window to catch any further glimpse of the girl and readied my camera this time. A thick mist laid outside and I could barely outline the cottage opposite. I tried to gather my nerves and be firm. I had seen something that I could have neither expected nor believed. But it somehow fulfilled my purpose. I sat there by the window waiting. I kept recalling the apparition and the strange vision I had when it besieged me. The more I thought about it, the more vividly it shadowed my mind. The strange dissolving form of the little girl, so angelic it appeared. The deep expressive eyes, glistening like morning dews. I could feel the chilling fall down the waterfall, the strong wind beating on my face and I could barely keep my eyes open as I went deeper below. But my eyes were wide open when I started to fall. And I could remember the edge of the cliff. The green bushes as they rustled and waved.  A grasshopper hopped across the shrubs. A small group of unknown insects hovering, with a soft buzz, among the bushes and plants. The crystal blue sky above, punctuated by scattered white clouds.

 

And close to the edge of the cliff, stood a figure, with arms stretched out towards me. His expressions were dismal and his lips were parted in utter grief. As I recalled the image again and again, it got so clear that I could touch and feel the drops of tears that run down the cheeks of my face. Yes, there I was, standing right on the edge of the cliff, watching myself go down into the deep. So true.

 I slowly started to feel the chill around me and turned back.

 The apparition was looking at me.

 Slowly she stretched out her hand and touched me. The chill was too much to bear and I shut my eyes close.

 ‘I knew you suffered.’ The voice echoed. I had been missing this voice for ages. And there it was back to me, just like it was all a bad dream.

 I was shivering.

 ‘I waited for you over the year.’

 I stood with my lips sealed. I felt my throat choked. I couldn’t utter a word. Though I miserably wished to.

 ‘You did just right.’

 With all my strength, I opened my eyes. The apparition was more vivid. And slowly, she came closer.

 ‘Thank you, dad.’ She embraced me tightly and sent million sparkles around my eyes. I felt immensely relieved. I slowly put my arms around the cold form. My throat cleared and I cried out aloud.

 “Oh I miss you so much, my child.”

  

Epilogue

 Following are some extracts from the diary of the narrator that will give some more insights to the tale.

 ‘My little daughter is diagnosed Acute Myeloid Leukaemia today….spent some time looking at my wife’s photo. I don’t know if I should be glad since she is not alive to see this day or sad that she is not with me today. I felt very lonely.’

 ‘I was wake all night long…the pain again started…she cried all night.’

 ‘Started the chemo today…am just hoping it cures her. I cant bear watching her.’

 ‘I read all resources upon the disease that I could lay my hands upon in the net.’

 ‘Just before going to bed, she asked me when she would get her normal hair back. The strong medications have thinned them. She look so different in a month.’

 ‘I have made up my mind. I shall set my angel free. I must take up this immense trail upon me.’

 ‘She is so happy today when I told her about our trip. She loves the forests so much…just like me. We shall be leaving this weekend. I want her to enjoy this week as much as she can…every moment goes so hard on me…I fall short of words when she asks me when she can join back her friends at school. But she is determined she wont go to school without her hair back in proper shape.’

 ‘I returned today. I have killed myself and there moves my corpse around my house. It was my beloved home once. The keepers at the woods were bit surprised when I told them about the sudden illness of my daughter and that I had taken her to the city early morning. But they didn’t doubt it.’

 ‘I caught up with writing again. Also travelling. I can’t feel better when I am a rolling stone, running away from home…running away from myself. But I can’t sleep. The nights are too heavy on me. I am culpable and every moment punishes me.’

 ‘It’s her birthday next month. There is a strange call around me, compelling me to go there…again.’

 The people never saw the apparition in the haunted cottage again. Suraj still remembers the narrator as the brave man who solved the mystery. But he could never know the reason why the narrator turns up around the same time every year there and asks for the once haunted cottage. Once he had seen him quietly standing at the edge of the cliff, looking at the great waterfall. Like a ritual, he would slowly lean forward, looking down at the deep, and drop a beautifully wrapped gift-pack.

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